Freedom Riders tells the powerful story of six months in 1961 when more than 400 black and white Americans risked their lives to challenge Jim Crow laws that maintained segregated travel on buses and trains. The Riders endured death threats, beatings, and jail time as they traveled together through the American South. Ultimately, their non-violent protest desegregated interstate travel.
Examine strategic lessons from the Rides, draw parallels between the struggles of the 1960s and today, and support youth-led action around current social justice struggles.
Firelight Productions documented the Riders’ story through the voices of people who lived it: the Riders themselves, state and federal government officials, and journalists who witnessed the Rides firsthand—heightening the visibility of a story that had been told before but never in such great depth. The primary goal was to capture the drama, celebrating the bravery and the historic implications of the Rides, so that viewers could honor the sacrifices of the foot soldiers of this movement, take stock of how far we have come, and consider the unresolved challenges that lay ahead.
It was particularly important for the filmmakers to reach a young audience, many of whom were likely unaware of the Freedom Rides and likely reticent about watching a historical documentary. They believed that the film could provide a powerful example of a successful multiracial, youth-led effort, and that the example might motivate young activists and encourage those who are not already active in social causes to become engaged in social change. In order to make the story appealing and relevant to young people, they realized that they had to put the characters first and let the first-hand accounts of the young organizers drive the narrative. They also placed the Freedom Rides in a larger context of other civil rights struggles taking place across the country and tried to capture the sophistication and boldness of the Riders’ organizing strategy.
Firelight knew that the film would reach a broad American public through the national broadcast on PBS, so they focused their campaign on engaging young adults of color and the organizations that serve them. For two years they worked closely with 16 local and national organizations that were mobilized around a range of social justice issues, including immigrant rights, voter disenfranchisement, closing the opportunity gap, and the cradle-to-prison pipeline. In addition to working with major national groups (such as Center for Community Change, Children’s Defense Fund, NAACP, and Center for American Progress), they gave special attention to seven local organizations that work closely with youth of color (see list below).
Freedom Riders won three Emmy Awards. It helped the PBS series American Experience win a George Foster Peabody Award. It inspired Oprah Winfrey to dedicate an entire show to honor the Freedom Riders. And it screened at the White House. The film was also included in Bill Moyers’ list of 10 best documentaries about champions of social justice. It made the New York Times top 10 films of the year, and it became the most watched show in the American Experience franchise in 2011, reaching three million viewers.
Over 5,500 young people and adults attended events hosted by our partners, with many more thousands who read about, listened to, or watched related local programming on various platforms. In evaluation surveys, partners stated that the film and campaign were useful in helping to recruit and energize volunteers, raise funds for their organizations, and connect with new groups.
More importantly, the film played a unique role in connecting the dots between historical and contemporary social justice issues. Many of the panel conversations after the film included a mix of African American Freedom Riders and undocumented DREAM Act students. The conversations were intergenerational and interethnic, and many of the screening events were organized in concert with rallies and actions related to the DREAM Act or events in support of immigrants across Arizona and Alabama, two states facing anti-immigrant legislation. The connected screenings and rallies provided a clear link between reflecting on the past and utilizing those lessons for contemporary social justice organizing and civic engagement.