• A twelve year old girl trying to help by carrying glasses of water to victims of a firebombed bus while a mob of Klu Klux Klan members surged around her.
  • Alabama governor, John Patterson, railing against “outside agitators – black men and white women” who were coming to Alabama to rile up the “good people of local communities” by riding a bus together.
  • College students signing their last will and testament before stepping onto a bus headed to Alabama and Mississippi, expecting to be beaten and killed.
  • Bull Conner, the police commissioner of Birmingham, cutting a deal with the KKK promising 15 minutes to “burn, bomb, kill, maim, I don’t give a god-damn what you do. I will guarantee that not one soul will be arrested in the 15 minutes” after Freedom Riders got off the bus.
  • A reporter not wanting to look black Freedom Riders in the eye as they entered a “Whites Only” waiting area, knowing that death for the Riders was very likely just minutes away. And later stepping between the Riders and members of a Birmingham mob in an attempt to keep that from happening.

The Freedom Rides of 1961 happened a long time ago. And for your students, the events of that summer seem absolutely ancient. But the PBS special, Freedom Riders, that aired last year as part of the 50th anniversary of the Freedom Rides is an incredibly powerful tool for helping your kids understand the context of the Civil Rights movement.

PBS does a wonderful job of combining oral interviews from participants, photos, news footage, newspaper coverage, and video clips to create a truly engaging and emotional documentary. The film helps put a human face on both those fighting for civil rights and those fighting to retain the entrenched culture of Jim Crow.

At an hour and 51 minutes, the video is too long for a single classroom period. And, normally, I suggest that very few movies are good enough and powerful enough to show in their entirety. While it would be possible to chunk pieces of this story out, Freedom Riders just may be the exception.

PBS has maintained the Freedom Riders site with its access to teacher materials such as a study guide, instructional materials and links to related resources at EDSITEment. You can find tons of background information on the riders, the context of the period, and a handy timeline. The video is showing on PBS throughout the month of February but you can also stream in directly off the PBS site.

Freedom Riders is a story of amazing courage and bravery. Of racism and extreme bigotry, of cruelty. Simple acts of kindness. Of turning the other cheek and turning a blind eye.

Ultimately, it is a story of America. At its best and its worst. And it’s a story that our kids need to hear.

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