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Western Massachusetts salutes Freedom Riders

April 2, 2011
In The News

SPRINGFIELD - There was a time when black people could not use the same public rest rooms as white people, drink from the same drinking fountains, go to the same schools, or eat at the same lunch counters in parts of this country.

Segregation was most virulent in the Deep South, and those who refused to cooperate could be badly beaten or killed.

“Freedom Riders,” a new documentary for public television, shows how in 1961 a group of black and white Americans climbed onto a bus, challenged a shameful tradition, and made history.

The public is invited to preview “Freedom Riders” on April 8 at 7 p.m. at Symphony Hall in Springfield. Some of the people who participated in those historic rides will speak in person after the screening.

The film will air on WGBY-TV on May16 on “American Experience,” part of a national observance of the 50th anniversary of the Freedom Rides.

Even though the Supreme Court had twice ruled that interstate travel could not be segregated, some states persisted in separating the races in bus stations and on buses.

In 1961 the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) decided to call attention to the abuse of this law by organizing bus trips to the South in which blacks and whites sat together.

They expected the project to be over in two weeks.

Instead, it exploded into violence, drew hundreds more Freedom Riders and make headlines as far away as the Soviet Union. and paved the way for greater freedoms.

Jean D. Thompson, of Amherst, was only 19 when she set out from New Orleans to join the Freedom Riders in Montgomery, Ala. “I didn’t see it as dangerous,” she said. “If I had been older I would have done the same.”

Thompson, who is black, will be part of a discussion after the April 8 screening with Judy Frieze Wright, who joined the Freedom Riders right after graduating from Smith College in 1961, and Freedom Rider James Breeden, of Leyden. Wright is white, Breeden is black.

Moderator of the discussion will be U.S. Congressman Richard Neal.

Although the Freedom Riders subscribed to non-violence, their first bus was fire-bombed by whites in Anniston, Ala., and the riders barely escaped with their lives

Subsequently, riders were punched, kicked and beaten by Southern mobs with hammers, chains, guns and baseball bats. It was all caught on videotape and shown on TV news. And the worse it got, the more people joined the Freedom Riders.

“I was not an activist, just an ordinary citizen,” said Albert F. Gordon, a former teacher who owns an art gallery in Stockbridge, “but I was profoundly moved by the savagery I was seeing on television.”

Gordon was one of 430 people from all over the country who participated in the Freedom Rides in 1961. “I will never forget the people I met,” said Gordon, “and the courage it took to live in that horrific environment and sustain the strength to remain in the struggle.”

Russ Peotter, director of WGBY, said “Freedom Riders” is one of the most violent films his station has ever scheduled. At a University of Massachusetts preview, said Peotter, students couldn’t believe what they were seeing.

More than 60 Civil Rights activists in Western Massachusetts have been invited to the April 8 event. They will be honored with portraits by photographer Paul Mange Johansen projected on a large screen.

The event is one of many local programs leading up to the May 16 broadcast of the film. Bernard Lafayette Jr., who appears in the film, will appear at a screening in Great Barrington April 7 (see box). The Latino Youth Media Institute has interviewed Civil Rights veterans. There have been many related school projects.

Sponsors of local events include Baystate Health, MassLive/The Republican, WGBY, the Springfield Forum; Bulkley, Richardson and Gelinas; United Way of Pioneer Valley, city of Springfield and WEIB-FM.


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