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'Freedom Riders' to premiere on AETN May 16

Posted 29 Apr 2011

From award-winning filmmaker Stanley Nelson comes “Freedom Riders,” the powerful, harrowing and inspirational story of six months in 1961 that changed America forever. The film will premiere as part of the “American Experience” series Monday, May 16, at 9 p.m. on the Arkansas Educational Television Network (AETN).
From May until November 1961, more than 400 black and white Americans risked their lives – and many endured savage beatings and imprisonment – for simply traveling together on buses and trains as they journeyed through the Deep South. Deliberately violating Jim Crow laws, the Freedom Riders’ belief in non-violent activism was sorely tested as mob violence and bitter racism greeted them along the way. “Freedom Riders” features testimony from a fascinating cast of central characters: the Riders themselves, state and federal government officials, and journalists who witnessed the rides firsthand.
Despite two earlier Supreme Court decisions that mandated the desegregation of interstate travel facilities, black Americans in 1961 continued to endure hostility and racism while traveling through the South. The newly inaugurated Kennedy administration, embroiled in the Cold War and worried about the nuclear threat, did little to address domestic civil rights.
The self-proclaimed Freedom Riders came from all strata of American society – black and white, young and old, male and female, northern and southern. They embarked on the rides knowing the danger but firmly committed to the ideals of non-violent protest, aware that their actions could provoke a savage response but willing to put their lives on the line for the cause of justice.
Each time the Freedom Riders met violence and the campaign seemed doomed, new ways were found to sustain and even expand the movement. After Klansmen in Alabama set fire to an original Freedom Ride bus, student activists from Nashville organized a ride of their own. Later, Mississippi officials locked up more than 300 Riders in the notorious Parchman State Penitentiary.
After nearly five months of fighting, the federal government capitulated. On September 22, the Interstate Commerce Commission issued its order to end the segregation in bus and rail stations that had been in place for generations.
In addition to the broadcast, “American Experience” is hosting the 2011 Student Freedom Ride, a major outreach initiative that will retrace the historic civil rights bus rides that changed America. Accompanied by original Freedom Riders, 40 college students will participate in the ride, which will take place May 6-16, in conjunction with the 50th anniversary of the original rides.
Samantha Williams of Bryant, a junior political science major at the University of Arkansas, is one of the students who has been selected for the Student Freedom Ride. Anyone interested in following Williams’ experience on the Student Freedom Ride is encouraged to visit to read her blog posts, see photos, follow her on Twitter and access other exclusive content.
“Although I have not been a victim of racism, I have witnessed firsthand the prejudice that so many people still have toward others who are different from themselves,” Williams said. “I wanted to ‘get on the bus’ to share my experiences with other young people and create a positive dialog amongst individuals of all colors.
“The fact is that we can all make a difference if we step up and speak out for what is right. Additionally, I wanted to pay tribute to the selfless men and women who risked their lives for equality. They are the true heroes.”
The Student Freedom Riders were chosen from nearly 1,000 applicants and represent a diverse cross section of America, much like the original Freedom Riders. Williams’ video essay application, as well as extensive historical information and film trailers, is available online at
The Ride will also serve as a means of launching a national conversation about the role of civic engagement in a thriving democracy, explore what issues inspire students to “get on the bus” today, and look at what forms civic engagement is taking on campuses and in communities across the country. Educators’ study guides, a sample lesson plan from Little Rock Central High School and other teacher resources are available at
The Student Freedom Ride will end in New Orleans on May 16 with a public event and rally to welcome the students and the original Freedom Riders 50 years later.
Television’s most-watched history series, “American Experience” has been hailed as “peerless” (Wall Street Journal), “the most consistently enriching program on television” (Chicago Tribune), and “a beacon of intelligence and purpose” (Houston Chronicle). On air and online, the series brings to life the incredible characters and epic stories that have shaped America’s past and present. Acclaimed by viewers and critics alike, “American Experience” documentaries have been honored with every major broadcast award, including 14 George Foster Peabody Awards, four duPont-Columbia Awards, and 27 Primetime and Creative Arts Emmy Awards, one most recently in Outstanding Directing Nonfiction for “My Lai.”
The Arkansas Educational Television Network (AETN) is Arkansas’s statewide public television network that enhances lives by providing lifelong learning opportunities for people from all walks of life. AETN delivers local, award-winning productions and classic, trusted PBS programs aimed at sharing Arkansas and the world with viewers. AETN depends on the generosity of Arkansans and the State of Arkansas to continue offering quality programming. For more information, visit, or follow the AETN blog at AETN is broadcast on KETS (Little Rock), KEMV (Mountain View), KETG (Arkadelphia), KAFT (Fayetteville), KTEJ (Jonesboro), and KETZ (El Dorado).