By TJ Dunnivant

SDAAMFA exhibit at the Quartyard. Photo: TJ Dunnivant

On Monday, August 15, 2022, in conjunction with the San Diego African American Museum of Fine Art (SDAAMFA), the San Diego Public Library showed the documentary “Freedom Riders”, a film by Stanley Nelson and an official selection of the Sundance Film Festival.  The showing of the film commemorated the 60th anniversary of the 1961 freedom bus rides and was also shown in conjunction with the SDAAMFA’s “The Buses are Coming” downtown exhibit that runs until September 7, 2022. 

The exhibit included an interactive display of some of the Freedom Riders speaking or being interviewed. The exhibit also had QR codes that would display important parts of the film. Photo: TJ Dunnivant

The cover graphics for the documentary have words begging the question, “Could you get on the bus?” As the story unfolds, that very question continues to play in the back of one’s mind, as it shows more than 400 courageous men and women, Black and white, putting their lives on the line to challenge the segregation laws of the Deep South.

According to one of the film’s historians, Irene Morgan refused to give up her seat on the bus in Virginia in July 1944. Morgan took her case to the Supreme Court and in June 1946, interstate segregation on public transportation was struck down. However, over the years the Deep South refused to enact the new decision and the Congress of Racial Equality (C.O.R.E) decided to use non-violent sit-ins and demonstrations to see if the Federal Government would protect their rights. 

The San Diego Library audience awaiting discussion after the video presentation. Photo: TJ Dunnivant

In May 1961, C.O.R.E. orchestrated the bus rides on public transportation and sent Freedom Riders from Washington DC down to Anniston, Montgomery, and Birmingham to challenge their segregation laws. The bus to Anniston was stopped, vandalized, and was eventually set on fire, almost killing all the passengers.  The bus to Montgomery was also met with an angry KKK mob that inflicted horrific violence on the passengers and journalists.  The Freedom Riders that made it to Jackson, Mississippi were arrested and placed in Parchman Prison, formally known as the Mississippi State Penitentiary.

The audience listened carefully as Mr. Brown reminded. Photo: TJ Dunnivant

Some of the Freedom Riders admitted that they were somewhat naive about the danger they were headed into.  And some, like the late congressman, John Lewis were more than willing to sacrifice whatever it took to ensure that Black people were treated the same as any other citizen in this nation. Seeing the footage of the chaos and danger, one couldn’t help but applaud the courage of those who got on the bus. It makes one wonder if they would have had what it took to face those same dangers.  And, as the San Diego CORE member Harald K. Brown charged, “The fight is not over and the action comes in the form of getting out to vote!”

Mr. Brown stressed that we must continue fighting for equity and equality more than ever.  History, he reminded, has a way of repeating itself, especially when it comes in the form of oppression and discrimination against Black Americans. The SDAAMFA film and exhibit gives local San Diegans plenty of opportunities to explore Black History and might reasons to get out and vote, vote, vote!