Published: May 14, 2011
“I grabbed the back door and held it open with one hand while trying to help her get up with the other,” he says. “I was just a little kid and I thought, ‘Someday I’m going to do something about this problem.’ ”
Lafayette, born in Ybor City, grew up to be a minister, a teacher and one of the pioneers in the civil rights movement in the 1960s.
The national coordinator of Martin Luther King Jr.’s Poor People’s Campaign, he also was one of the Freedom Riders, black and white volunteers who risked their lives in the summer of 1961 merely by riding together on public transportation.
Their story is told in a new documentary “Freedom Riders,” debuting Monday night on PBS’s “American Experience.”
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The film is based on a history book that’s getting a lot of attention – “Freedom Riders: 1961 and the Struggle for Racial Justice,” by professor Raymond Arsenault, a teacher at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg.
His book has become the centerpiece of a month-long national celebration of the 50th anniversary of the rides to break segregation.
The documentary has been screened at film festivals around the world. Arsenault, Lafayette and others were on “The Oprah Winfrey Show” May 4 to talk about the experience. A traveling Freedom Riders exhibit visits museums. A paperback version of Arsenault’s book has been released. And a Hollywood screenwriter, William Broyles (“Apollo 13,” “Saving Private Ryan”) is developing a feature film.
“This was an extraordinary story about ordinary people who came together and made a difference.” says Arsenault who, now finishing a 10-day commemorative Freedom Rider bus trip through the South that ends Tuesday in New Orleans.
Lafayette, now a scholar in residence at Emory University, says that from May to December 1961, more than 400 Freedom Riders from across the country went on more than 60 rides in the Deep South to test the enforcement of federal desegregation laws. Many were attacked. More than 300 were jailed.
“This was a peaceful, nonviolent attempt to challenge authorities in the south,” Arsenault says. “There had been two federal court decisions that struck down segregation but nothing had changed.”
Bus, train and airline terminals remained segregated. Arsenault says, “Nobody in the government had the guts to force the change until Freedom Riders made the John F. Kennedy administration wake up.”
The first Freedom Ride had trouble in Rock Hill, S.C., where two passengers were attacked when they tried to use the “white only” facilities at a terminal where a mob waited.
A few days later, the riders split into two groups to travel through Alabama. The group that reached Anniston, Ala., was attacked by a mob that stoned the bus, slashed the tires and then firebombed it. The bus was destroyed but the people escaped.
When the second bus arrived, it too was attacked. The bus headed to Birmingham where another mob awaited. Passengers were beaten and police did nothing. Media coverage, especially on television, brought attention to the injustice.
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Kredelle Petway says she got chills when she saw the documentary. “It’s emotional, almost surreal, and hard to believe that people were that hateful,” says Petway, now retired in Apollo Beach.
She was a 20-year-old Florida A&M University student when she, her father and her younger brother became airline Freedom Riders.
“People may know more about the bus riders but we also challenged segregation at airline terminals,” says Petway, who was arrested when they landed in Jackson, Miss. “They had a paddy wagon waiting for us.”
The police were waiting because the Petways had tried to get service at a lunch counter when the airplane stopped at the Montgomery airport.
She says she hopes the film will show young people that freedom should not be taken for granted. But she wonders whether younger generations will even want to watch a documentary on PBS.
Arsenault says the Freedom Riders taught a valuable lesson: “Ordinary people can change the course of human history and make the world a better place.”
Lafayette, who comes back to visit Tampa often, says reflecting on the past can help heal wounds. At the Freedom Riders reunion on Winfrey’s show, a former Klansman from South Carolina apologized for beating a young rider in 1961. The rider, George Congressman John Lewis, a leader in the American Civil Rights Movement, forgave him.
Lafayette says the documentary is a powerful testimony to the Freedom Riders. “I recently watched it at a special screening in the Tampa Theatre and I had this interesting emotional reaction,” he says. “Here I was in a theater that wouldn’t let me in when I was a child.”