The Common Good

Facebook, Freedom Riders, and Other Lessons in Nonviolent Activism

By the time Egyptian activists in Tahrir square had ousted Mubarak, I'd read more articles labeling it a "Facebook revolution" than you can wave a shoe at. But as Rose Marie Berger points out in "Nothing Spontaneous About It" in the May 2011 issue of Sojourners magazine, this seemingly- spontaneous revolution has actually "been years in the planning." Forget Facebook or Twitter -- the real roots of this revolution were the same as America's own civil rights movement: good, old-fashioned nonviolent civic activism.

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Which prompts me to admit: I don't know much about good, old-fashioned nonviolent civic activism. Especially from the civil rights movement of the 1960s.

So I watched Freedom Riders, the 2011 PBS American Experience documentary set to air on May 16. Freedom Riders chronicles the story of the college students -- black and white -- who, in 1961, rode public buses together into the deep south, in deliberate violation of the Jim Crow laws to create a national de-segregation movement.

The film opens with original Freedom Riders -- now in their seventies -- reading the essays they wrote in 1961 before they boarded buses. The mood is set when their idealistic essays are contrasted with staggering footage of white southerners holding "segregation forever" signs, massive KKK rallies, and earnest politicians explaining that segregation has proved "for the best interest of both the colored and the white people."

As Freedom Riders tracks the buses' progress, the nonviolent riders are met with increasingly violent opposition -- beaten, bloodied, even burned -- completely ignored (if not outright endorsed) by local police. And though the students' idealism eventually fades, their determination and commitment to nonviolence crystallizes. By the time they are jailed in Mississippi for a "breach of peace" and "agitating," their story has called international attention to deeply-embedded racism of the South. When the rides ended in November 1961, more than 400 nonviolent activists from across the country had joined the original sixteen riders.

With reels of original footage, complemented by frank interviews with participants, bystanders, and politicians involved in the 1961 events, Freedom Riders is a great place for nonviolent-movement newbies to start. My only complaint is the heavy-handed foreshadowing forced by overly-ominous stock music in the first half of the film. (Seriously, the soundtrack to JAWS is more subtle.) But even then, the beautiful recordings of freedom songs like "Buses Are A-Coming" or "Hallelujah I'm A Traveling" which appear later in the film are powerful enough to atone for multitude of musical sins committed elsewhere.

If you can't bear to wait until it airs on PBS May 16, check out the Freedom Riders website for a generous selection of clips from the film, as well as a searchable database of the riders, interactive timelines, information about the traveling exhibit, and resources for teachers.

But it gets better: Filmmakers are also sponsoring the 2011 Student Freedom Rides taking place this May -- the 50th anniversary of the original Freedom Rides. Starting in Washington, D.C., 40 college students from around the country have been selected to board Mississippi-bound buses, retracing the 1961 routes and talking with original Freedom Riders about what it means for a new generation to "get on the bus." And, naturally, they'll blog, tweet, and post live Facebook updates from the road to share with viewers.

And though the 2011 Freedom Riders are certainly more social-media savvy than their 1961 counterparts, they're also aware of the limitations of "Facebook activism" -- much like the young Egyptian activists who laid years worth of ground work before they set foot in Tahrir square. "To sign an online petition or to 'like' a cause on Facebook just isn't enough," says one student participating in the 2011 rides, "I think we really need to reflect on our history to know where this movement is going."

portrait-betsy-shirleyBetsy Shirley is an editorial assistant at Sojourners.

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