Reliving the Sixties: Freedom Riders (May 1961)

Last night I caught the riveting documentary Freedom Riders on the PBS American Experience series.  May 4th, was the fiftieth anniversary of the first freedom riders who rode down south to challenge the Jim Crow laws.  Check your PBS stations because they often repeat shows and this show is a standout that’s worth tracking down.  You can also watch the show online.

Last night I wasn’t in the mood to watch TV at all, but I caught the beginning of this show and just couldn’t stop watching, and the film was two hours long.  I love history, I read a lot of history books, and watch a lot of documentaries on TV about history, and I’ve read and seen references to freedom riders my whole life, but until I saw this film I never understood their real importance and how these people affected our everyday lives.  This film, in a day-by-day diary, made history riveting, but more than that, it was a revelation because it was history I had lived though, even though I was only nine at the time, and I realized just how little I had been paying attention.

Even if we’re news addicts, reading newspapers, magazines, blogs and spend all our time watching TV news, we still miss so much.  It takes time to put history together into a story that’s understandable.  Sometimes it takes a long time before we really want to put the facts together to make a story.  That’s why great books are often written years and decades later.

I realized as I was watching this film – we’re going to be reliving the 1960s day-by-day, week-by-week, month-by-month as 50th anniversary news stories and documentaries appear to remind us of how things happened as we were growing up.  I don’t know why I didn’t realize this sooner.  They’ve already had 50th anniversary stories about John F. Kennedy’s inauguration (January 20), the Beatles perform at the Cavern Club (February 9),  the Peace Corp creation (March 1), Yuri Gagarin’s first space flight (April 12),  Bay of Pigs (April 17), Alan Shepard goes into space (May 5), and so on.  I’m waiting for anniversary of  Kennedy announcing our plan to go to the Moon (May 25).

Fifty years is a long time.  I grew up in the 60s, so I love stories about that decade.  I turn 60 this year, and will be hearing all the anniversaries about the 1960s all through my sixties.  I felt like I came of age in the 1960s, so watching documentaries about those times is like filling in gaps to my memory.  Seeing that show last night was like SNAP! – and suddenly so much became clear.  My actual knowledge of the 1960s is rather sketchy, like having a 1,000 word puzzle with just a few clumps of pieces put together and no box cover to know what the image looks like.  The Freedom Riders show connected several pieces were I can actually see part of an image.

I was 9 years old in May of 1961 when the freedom riders started their trips south.  I was finishing up the third grade and I knew very little about the world around me.  I was very excited by the space program, and I remember being at school and they played Alan Shepard’s flight over the PA system.  I remember a lot of excitement about John F. Kennedy – my mom loved him.  I remember doing duck and cover drills, and I had fantasies about B-52 bombers dropping atomic bombs on our playground as part of the drills, and being disappointed when they didn’t. 

But if I heard about the freedom riders it made no impression on me.  I was living in Hollywood, Florida at the time, but just before that, when my mom and dad were separated for awhile, my Mom, sister and I lived in Marks, Mississippi.  My first memory of Jim Crow in action was at Marks, when I was getting a drink at the Piggly-Wiggly.  A big white guy came running out of the back and started screaming at me, calling me all kinds of names for being stupid.  I was drinking out of the fountain for black people.  I didn’t like that guy.  I didn’t like any of the racists I met there, but it wasn’t because I was enlightened and understood civil rights.  I just never liked violent people.

I don’t know when I became aware of civil rights as a cause.  Growing up the the 1960s I saw a lot of social upheaval, and civil rights was just one of many causes I grew up hearing about.  Because my family moved around so much, I was always the new kid, the outsider, and it was easy for me to identify with other outsiders.  I grew up embracing liberal ideas and thinking radical thoughts.  I have no idea why.  And often what I knew was fragmentary at best, third and fourth hand knowledge, passed around by kids who didn’t know shit.  I don’t think it was until 1965 that I started watching the nightly news regularly.  I got a few fun bits of news from Life Magazine and The Today Show, but how much?

My awareness of living through the early sixties was extremely limited at best, so seeing something like Freedom Riders brings a clarity to me, putting youthful memories into perspective.  I knew what civil rights were by 1965, but mainly because of Bob Dylan, so I’m sketchy on how things developed in the early 60s.  The Freedom Riders were the beginning of the end of Jim Crow, but I never knew that until last night.  And I had just finished The Warmth of Other Suns, that had chronicled the effects of Jim Crow in the 30s, 40s, and 50s.  History is amazing when the puzzle pieces start coming together.

The trouble is we all know so little about history.  How can we make sense of our times?  Look at this report, “STILL AT RISK:  What Students Don’t Know, Even Now.”   Only 43% of students can place the Civil War in the 1850-1900 time period?  April 11th was the 150th anniversary of attack on Fort Sumter.  Is the Civil War just too old to matter?  Well, most students don’t know much about WWI or WWII or Korea or Vietnam.  Maybe we’ve been in too many wars for our students to remember.  But should high school kids be expected to understand the wars in which they lived through?  Will it take kids who were 9 when 9/11 happened fifty years to finally put the puzzle pieces together abut their times?

History is something we learn our whole life.  As a kid I lived in the now, which was the 1950s and early 1960s, then as I started reading, watching the news, seeing documentaries, I started living backwards in time, studying the past.  While still young I explored the 1930s through MGM movies, or 1950s with jazz music, or the 1940s by reading Jack Kerouac.  I’m currently exploring 1870s England by reading Anthony Trollope.  But I think for the next ten years I’ll be concentrating on the 1960s again because of all the 50th anniversary remembrances.

Wikipedia has a nice year by year summary, and you can check 1961 to see what’s coming up.  June 25 is the anniversary of Iraq trying to annex Kuwait.  I didn’t know that, and that only proves Santayana’s famous quote "the one who does not remember history is bound to live through it again."

1961 was the year that Catch-22 and Stranger in a Strange Land were first published.  In 1961 Bob Dylan moved to New York City, and Ben E. King sang “Stand By Me” on the radio, and The Dick Van Dyke Show premiered on TV, but I didn’t know all that because I was 9 and was watching shows like The FlintstonesMr. Ed and Car 54, Where Are You?  What’s weird is I can go back to 1961 now by watching the first season of The Dick Van Dyke Show on Netflix.

I remember even more about 1962, 1963 and 1964.  As I got older I paid more attention to the things around me, and I can look at the Wikipedia listings of events during those years and remember that I heard about more of them when they happened, but most of those events I don’t remember at all, or learned about later.  But even by the year 1969, the year I graduated high school, I was still unaware of most of the events listed by Wikipedia.  How many of them will be remembered on the nightly news in the upcoming decade? 

How many of these historical events will get a 2 hour documentary made about them, like the Freedom Riders show?  I expect the Selma to Montgomery marches in 1965 to get the full treatment.  But what about the New York World’s Fair from the same year?  Most events might get 30 seconds on the nightly news, but the special ones will get  1-2 hour documentaries on PBS.

Remember Vietnam?  Reliving the 1960s will be reliving the Vietnam War.  Plus we have the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo space programs.  Remember the generation gap, the sexual revolution, hippies, rock and roll, communism, feminism, gay rights, and on and on.  There should be a wealth of 50th Anniversary documentaries in our future.  Why did we suddenly start changing so violently fifties years ago?  History is always about change, so was there really more change in the 1960s, or did it just seem so?

Why didn’t the 1950s get showcased in the last decade?  There was plenty of looking back to the 1950s, but I don’t remember the level of remembrances like we’re probably going to see for the 1960s.  The 1960s were when the baby boomers came of age, and we loved the spotlight, so I think my generation is going to do a lot more looking backwards.  Maybe the 1960s is more memorable because that was the decade that television and satellite communications took off.  Camera crews went everywhere.  But what does that mean for now, when historians start making documentaries about the twenty-tens?  There are way more cameras watching.  We’ll have to wait and see, but I doubt I’ll be around.

JWH – 5/21/11

3 Responses

  1. Less than 50 years from the first Freedom Riders to the first black President of the United States. That’s not so bad, considering that it took a hundred years from the Civil War to get to the Freedom Riders. It was a long, hard fight.

    Of course, there’s still plenty of racism in America. The hysteria about Barack Obama has a lot to do with that, with the Republican Party pretty much solidly white, solidly Christian, and older than the nation as a whole. That’s not to say that any Democrat would have it easy, but just that race-based hysteria has reached new heights.

    When you look where we’ve come in 50 years, we can really see a lot of progress. But we can still see resistance, too. No progress is inevitable, and it can always be reverse. (In fact, race relations were better in the last part of the 19th Century than in the first part of the 20th.)

    So we still see things like that poll of Mississippi Republicans where only 40% of them thought interracial marriage should be legal (more than 40 years after Loving v. Virginia!). But we’re still winning. America today is not the America of the 1960s, and for the most part, that’s good.

    So yeah, Jim, these anniversaries are interesting and valuable. It’s great to look back and see how far we’ve come,… and how far we still need to go.

  2. This might be a huge stretch, but I found it interesting that you mention that 60’s era stuff should by all rights be cropping up because of the 50th anniversary and I saw the trailer for the new X-Men movie yesterday and it is centered around the Bay of Pigs era of history. Hmmm….

    On a different note, PBS documentaries are generally just excellent. Even if I believe I am not particularly interested in a topic I can be riveted to the screen.

    I wholeheartedly agree that history is given way to little emphasis in schooling and that is very, very sad and ultimately I believe it hurts not only the individual but our history as a people.

    • When I was going through the Wikipedia year listings, I was surprised by how often a comic book or character got their start back then. For example The Fantastic Four debuted in 1961 and The Hulk in 1962. And the first appearance of Spiderman was in 1962. So pop culture seeds sometimes take a long time to catch hold.

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