Stanley Nelson

Stanley Nelson

Photo courtesy of Firelight Media

Movie Clip 1

Speaker 1: Boarding that Greyhound bus, to travel through the heart of the Deep South, I felt good. I felt happy. I felt liberated. I was like a soldier in a non-violent army. I was ready.


Speaker 2: The Freedom Rides of 1961 were a simple but daring plan to put blacks and whites on commercial busses. They would deliberately violate the segregation laws. (Clip) The idea of going into Mississippi and going into Alabama and challenging segregation so frontally was something that alarmed not only those that opposed civil rights but those within the civil rights community. (Clip)


Speaker 3: It was America. It was interracial. It was interregional. It was secular and religious. It was a shining moment.

Speaker 4: Your parents tell you "Don't start something that you can't finish. Finish it."


Jo Reed: Those were excerpts from the award-winning film "Freedom Riders," which was directed by Stanley Nelson.

Welcome to Art Works, the program that goes behind the scenes with some of the nation's great artists to explore how art works. I'm your host, Josephine Reed.

Stanley Nelson was one of ten directors participating in the inaugural year of Film Forward, an initiative of the Sundance Institute and the President's Committee on the Arts and the Humanities, in partnership with the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Institute of Museum and Library Services and the National Endowment for the Arts. The project presented five American and five foreign films, both narrative and documentary, to audiences in the United States and abroad. Moviegoers were given the opportunity to connect with the filmmakers themselves through post-film talkbacks, roundtables, and workshops in places ranging from China to the Ghetto Film School in the Bronx.

Stanley Nelson's film, "Freedom Riders,"was an inspired choice for the program. It's a documentary about the extraordinarily brave men and women, black and white, who risked their lives by riding on interstate buses together in 1961. From May through November, in a journey that began in Washington DC and ended in New Orleans, over 400 black and white Americans tested the law of the land and defied entrenched Jim Crow segregation.  As they made their journey, their bus was burned, they were set upon by out of control gangs, they were beaten, jailed, yet the trip continued as more and more people came forward to take their place.

Stanley Nelson based his documentary on Raymond Arsenault's book Freedom Riders: 1961 and the Struggle for Racial Justice. Nelson himself is an award-winning filmmaker and recipient of the MacArthur Genius Fellowship. In Freedom Riders, he wove together archival news footage with testimony from the Riders themselves, state and federal government officials, and journalists who covered the journey over those long months. The film which was part of the acclaimed PBS series, "The American Experience" was completed in 2010 in time for the 50th anniversary of the Freedom Rides in 2011. It went on to win acclaim at the many film festivals, including Sundance, where it was chosen for Film Forward. I caught up with Stanley Nelson in Washington, D.C. after a screening of "Freedom Riders"and a discussion, organized by Film Forward. Here's our conversation:

Jo Reed: Stanley Nelson, when did you first know that you wanted to make a film about the Freedom Riders?

Stanley Nelson: I was actually approached by American Experience. They had purchased Ray Arsenault's book, and they said that they wanted to send it to me and take a look at it, and they were thinking about making a film. Would I read the book and see what I thought. I said, "Yes, send the book, but I can tell you right now that I think it's a good idea and I'd like to do it."And that was because I knew a little bit about the story but not nearly as much as I thought I knew, but that I really had always wanted to do a film that took a look at a single piece of the Civil Rights movement and really was able to dissect one piece of the Civil Rights movement, so I kind of jumped at the chance to make the film.

Jo Reed: Just give us a very brief thumbnail sketch about what that piece is. There might be listeners who are uncertain who the Freedom Riders are.

Stanley Nelson: In 1961, thirteen people, seven whites and six blacks, decided that they would test the segregation laws on buses and in bus stations in the Deep South by getting on Greyhound and Trailways buses and going down from Washington, D.C., to New Orleans, and they would sit together on the buses. The white and black people would sit together on the buses. The whites would use the colored-only restrooms. The African-Americans would use the white-only restrooms and they'd eat together in the restaurants and bus stations and they'd see what happened. And so the film, "Freedom Riders," is the story of what ensues over the next couple of months as the first 13 people get beaten so badly they can't continue. Another group of students decide they'll take up the Freedom Rides. It finally includes over 400 people, and the signs in the bus stations are taken down as a result of the Freedom Rides.

Jo Reed: I think it's pretty fair to say that what happened with those rides really shocked at least a good part of the nation, and the media played a very important role in getting those images out to the American public at large.

Stanley Nelson: I mean, I think that part of the story is that these images of a burning bus, because the bus was fire-bombed, of people taking savage beatings, were shocking. And they were shocking not only in the North, but they were also shocking to people in the South. I mean, it was generally thought that the mobs that attacked the Freedom Riders had gone way too far, even in the South, but you have to understand that back in 1961 we basically had two countries. You had the North and the South and the segregation system in the South, and the violence that existed against African-Americans in the South was not talked about in the North and generally not covered or not covered very well by the Northern press.

Jo Reed: Do you remember those images when you were a kid?

Stanley Nelson: Kind of. I mean, it's all kind of mixed up in my head. I was ten years old when the Freedom Rides took place, so probably I don't remember when it happened, but I had seen these kinds of iconic pictures of the bus that was set on fire and some of the other pictures. I do remember some of the later events in the Civil Rights movement, the dogs being set on people, the fire-hoses. Those things I do remember watching on TV on the nightly news.

Jo Reed: The Freedom Riders themselves were people who were deeply committed to nonviolence and committed to the idea of the beloved community, which is a concept that came out of SNCC, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. And they really stuck to those guns in the face of horrific violence.

Stanley Nelson: Well, I mean, it was really important. That was part of the whole idea of the Freedom Riders that it was nonviolent no matter what, so the first group of Freedom Riders took training, where they were kind of set upon by each other and called names and to kind of get them not to react, not to be violent, no matter what happened, and one of the fantastic things for us in the film is that was recorded. They actually filmed the training sessions, so we were able to use that in the film.

Jo Reed: Do you think that they expected the extent of the violence?

Stanley Nelson: As Julian Bonds says in the film, they probably expected some kind of incidents to happen, but nowhere near the violence that they received. I think it was impossible for anyone to predict the level of violence that they would meet. Part of what we try to state over and over again in the film is that these people were just sitting together on the front of the bus. I mean, that's all they were doing, and for doing that, the bus was--a fire bomb was thrown in the bus and then the mob held the bus doors closed so that nobody could escape, attempting and hoping that the Freedom Riders would burn alive in the buses.

Jo Reed: But the Freedom Riders also had in their mind the idea of beginning a mass movement based on nonviolent direct action. That's fair?

Stanley Nelson: Right. I think that what the Freedom Riders felt also was that you have to take the movement into the Deep South, and that was one of the big pieces and revelations of the Freedom Riders is that it was generally thought by people in the movement, by most of the organizations and by the individual leaders that you couldn't go to Mississippi. You couldn't go to Alabama, that those places weren't ready, that first let's get a movement going in what's called the "Upper South," North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, those places, and let's go there, but the Freedom Riders said, "No. Where you see wrong you have to confront it and you have to confront it directly, and if you confront it directly with nonviolence, it will work. It will work. It will work."

Jo Reed: Freedom Riders were arrested in Mississippi and sent to Parchment Prison, which was probably one of the worst prisons in the United States at the time, and CORE, the Congress of Racial Equality, they had a bedrock belief of no bail, and that was pretty controversial at the time, wasn't it?

Stanley Nelson: Well, I think it was controversial, but I think at that point people were kind of willing to follow the Freedom Rides. At this point, this was after massive violence in Birmingham, Anniston, Montgomery, so people I think were willing to join in and listen. The idea of if they're going to arrest us, what we're going to do is we're not going to take bail. We're going to stay in jail and we're not only going to stay in jail but we're going to call for more Freedom Riders to come down here, and we'll fill up the jails and we'll put the burden onto Mississippi. We'll take the burden off us and we'll put the burden on Mississippi. Mississippi now has to house us, has to feed us, has to find a place for us to stay, and we'll just keep coming and coming and you can keep arresting us, but we will keep coming and we'll fill up your jails, and then what're you going to do?"

Jo Reed: Well, what did the Kennedy administration do?

Stanley Nelson: Well, the Kennedys really were interested in foreign policy. JFK was president and his brother Bobby Kennedy was attorney general. They were really interested in foreign policy. This was in the middle of the Cold War. The Kennedys had kind of come into office based on their Cold War stance, and this was the very beginning of the Civil Rights movement, and they wanted it to go away. That's what they wanted. They just wanted this thing to disappear. They also were elected partially because of Southern Democrats. At this point the South was very heavily Democratic. The Southern politicians had an inordinate amount of power in the Senate in Congress because they were elected over and over again, because the South always voted Democratic, so once you got in, the chance of you getting re-elected were very, very, very high, so they had all-- all the Southern politicians had been in office for a long time. They had this huge amount of power, and the Kennedys didn't want to go against them. The last thing the Kennedys wanted to do was to bring in federal troops, and to the South, that looked like, "Here we go. This is the same as at Reconstruction once again," and that was a terrible no-no, so the Kennedys were trying everything they possibly could do to not be involved or seem that they weren't involved and to not bring in federal troops, which finally they needed to do, of course.

Jo Reed: Okay Stanley, you have, I would imagine, an enormous amount of archival footage to choose from to tell this story, and at the same time you also had interviews of some of the people who were involved in it and are still alive, as well as historians who would comment on it. How did you get your arms around this?

Stanley Nelson: Well, I think that for us in making the film the biggest decision was when I made the decision that we're going to make the film without narration, and so that means that there's an extra burden on the archival material, the footage, the stills, the music, the radio pieces that we use, and so we knew that we had to have great, great, great archival. We'd already won awards for archival research in "Joan's Town" and in "Wounded Knee," two films that we did in the last few years, and so we had a track record, kind of knew how to find archival but really went all out in this process to find great archival footage and stills. And kind of the way we do that is the first day that we meet in the production team, we start making a list of archival footage, pictures, music, whatever that we're looking for, and we keep expanding that list, but we start looking from the very first day of production and we literally continue to look until the last day of production, so it's not an afterthought. The archival material for me and for us is part of the story. It is part of the storytelling, so it's very important.

Jo Reed: And the music, of course, is extraordinary from that period as well that you drew from.

Stanley Nelson: We were able to get great, great music. What we did was there's a number of records, music of the Civil Rights movement kind of thing, and so we took all of those and put them on the iPad and the computer and made a playlist, and I would just listen to music of that period over and over again all the time. It was on my phone. I'd listen to it on my phone. I'd listen to it at home. I'd listen to it in the office and just listen to it, and then I would kind of cull down the music that I thought, "So maybe we could use this. Maybe we could use that." Anything that I thought might be good then we'd put on another-- I called it a "hit list" of the Civil Rights movement, and then I started listening to that more and more. And from that, we started making the music that actually is in the film.

Movie Clip 2


Speaker 1: Singing was a way of releasing tension, so we did a lot of singing. A lot of the songs came from old spirituals, they just changed the words to fit what was going on at the time.


Speaker 2: As we got on the bus, I had an idea for a new stanza. "Riding on this big Greyhound, carrying love from town to town, keep your eyes on the prize, hold on" and everybody started singing along with me, and that's what we sang as we got on the bus.

Speaker 3: There were different songs that we would sing to fit the occasion. For example, one of the songs we would sing would go like, "Ain't gonna let nobody turn me around, turn me around, turn me around, ain't gonna let nobody turn me around, I'm gonna keep on a-walkin', keep on a-talkin', walkin' up the King's highway."


Speaker 4: Because I wouldn't stop singing, I got put in solitary confinement three different times.

Speaker 5: We had a small group in our jail cell, and we had a quartet, and I was part of that quartet, and we would sing to the ladies late at night when things were quiet. "I know, I know we'll meet again, I know, I know we'll meet again, I know, I know we'll meet again someday."The reason for that singing was to let them know that we were okay, and then they would sing back to us and they would let us know that they were okay.


Speaker 6: Music put us in harmony with each other, gave us support for each other, and we relished the opportunity. Even if you didn't have a great voice, it didn't matter, you could hum, and so everybody could sing.

Stanley Nelson: I think one of the great stories of the music that we used is there's a song called "Hallelujah, I'm Traveling," which was actually written by Bayard Rustin, a great Civil Rights leader. And the only version-- and this was actually written for the Freedom Rides, but the only version that we could find was him singing it, and he sings in this kind of really operatic voice, so it's like <imitates Bayard Rustin singing> "Hallelujah, I'm a-traveling. Hallelujah"-- and it just didn't work for anything in the film, and so we asked the guy who was composing the original music for the film, and he said, "I have a singer who I can ask to do it," and he had her record it and he sent us the recording, and she sounded like Whitney Houston or Mariah Carey or something. It was just like too much vocalization, and I told him, "Have her do it again and have her do it like she's riding on a bus in the middle of the night on the Freedom Rides. She's going through Alabama. It's three in the morning. Everybody else is asleep and she's sitting there with her head up against the window kind of singing to herself. She's just singing the song to herself. Have her do it like that." He sent it back to us and everybody was just bowled over, and it becomes a central point in the film. That one song is something we go back to over and over again in the film.

Speaker 7: Singing, the music, became a powerful non-violent instrument. It was often said, without music, without the singing, we would have lost our sense of solidarity. It gave us hope in a time of hopelessness.


Stanley Nelson: She actually ends the film singing that song, and it's really-- it is that kind of thing where it's just magic. It didn't have to happen, didn't have to work, but it did.


Jo Reed: What about the people you spoke to who were involved in the Freedom Rides, both the riders, but also I have to tell you, the person who intrigued me was Governor Patterson.  Do tell us about him.

Stanley Nelson: Well, Governor Patterson's a fascinating character. He was governor in Alabama in 1961. He was the youngest governor ever elected. He was 32 when he was elected, so when we interviewed him, he was about 80. He was still very vibrant, still had a great, great memory and really wanted to talk about it and talk about it honestly. Also I should say that back then we have a number of film clips of him back then, and he's just an out-and-out racist and just a horrible guy. He says, one of his great, great quotes is, "You can't protect the safety of a fool, and that's what these Freedom Riders are, just fools, and I can't protect them." Just a real character back then, but I think now he's had a lot of chance to reflect on it, and I feel that he just wanted to confess. He wanted to confess his sins. He wanted to get those sins off his chest and have a chance to really just talk about it and be honest, not so much for forgiveness, but just as an act of confession. And he's incredibly honest. There's this great scene, where he talks about how he gets a call from JFK, who's the President of the United States, and he tells his secretary to tell JFK, the President of the United States that he's not there, and then Kennedy's person persists and says, "Well, where is he?" and Patterson says, "Tell him that I'm in the Gulf fishing and I can't be reached." And he says, "I lied. I simply lied." It's just a great moment in the film, a great moment of honesty, a great moment of candor, and as a filmmaker, I thank him so much, because it means so much to the film to hear this guy, one, back there in 1961, but also today talking about it so honestly and openly.

Jo Reed: And what about the Freedom Riders and what they remember? 

Stanley Nelson: Well, the Freedom Riders are getting up there, but a lot of them were college students, so many of them were 20, and that was 50 years ago, so they're 70. They still have great memories. I mean, I've done films where I interviewed everybody was 90 and 95 years old, so these are young'uns to me. They're great. I mean, I think that they were great. I think that one of the most marvelous things about the Freedom Riders is that in the stories that these were common, normal, everyday people, a lot of them who did this very amazing, courageous thing. And so many of them went back to their normal lives, and many of them are not asked on a daily, monthly or weekly or yearly basis about the Freedom Rides, so I asked them and it opened up a floodgate. Part of my job as the director was to shut them up, because they just wanted to talk so much about it, and they actually-- a lot of them really hated me and they thought I was nuts until they saw the film, because to them I just kept interrupting them and I kept saying, "No, I don't need that," and I wouldn't let them talk about certain things and make them talk about other things, and a couple of them have told me, "We thought you were insane, because you only wanted to talk about what you wanted to talk about," but now they all say, "Now we see where you were headed," so it's great.

Jo Reed: What surprised you as you were doing the research?

Stanley Nelson: I think for me the whole film, the whole story surprised me. It's such a multilevel story. It's such a kind of a roller coaster adventure ride, but I think one of the things that really surprised me was the fact that the story works on so many different kind of political levels, so on one level it's these people riding a bus through the South. On another it's the state government with Governor Patterson weighing in. It's the national government with the Kennedys, and then there's this whole other arena that it works in, which is the Cold War, so you have Russia weighing in with the headlines about the Freedom Riders. In Cuba there's a radio piece that we use from Radio Havana talking about how Kennedy needs to mind his own business and stay out of Cuba when he can't manage his own business at home. We have a great film clip from Czechoslovakia talking about how black people in the United States can't even ride from state to state, so how can the United States talk about freedom if they can't even mind their own business? So, I think that really surprised me.

Jo Reed: I think for viewers what might be surprising is the conflicts within the Civil Rights movement, because people tend to think of the Civil Rights movement as monolithic, as opposed to it contained many voices.

Stanley Nelson: Right. I think that's a really interesting point about the story is that the first group, the Freedom Riders, are from CORE, the Congress of Racial Equality, and the other Civil Rights leaders, including Martin Luther King, are telling them, "Don't go. Don't go down South. The South isn't ready. You guys aren't prepared. You're basically a Northern group. You're not ready for the Deep South." And then later on, Martin Luther King is asked again to join the Freedom Rides, and he refuses, and there's a lot of animosity towards Dr. King at that point, and again, some cracks develop that then kind of play out as the Civil Rights movement plays out later on, especially between younger people and the more established, kind of Christian organizations that Martin Luther King and Ralph Abernathy and others ran.

Jo Reed: And finally, Stanley, as this film is part of Film Forward, what kind of conversations have you been having as people around the world have been seeing the film?

Stanley Nelson: Right. Well, I've gone to China with Film Forward, which is just an incredible experience. On one level people ask the same questions. They would ask about Governor Patterson, about the Kennedys, about Martin Luther King, but on the other hand, they would ask questions that were strictly Chinese. One guy asked about, "This took place about the same time as the Cultural Revolution. How can we here do a film on the Cultural Revolution? Is that possible? How would we get started? Do you think we'd be censored?" One of the greatest questions we got was a young guy asked, "So, why was there segregation in the United States?" which was such a beautiful question. It's so elemental and it's just wonderful. It's a question that we're probably too jaded and too sophisticated to ask, but it's a central question in the story of the Freedom Riders.

Jo Reed: Thank you very much.

Stanley Nelson: It's my pleasure. Thank you.


That was Stanley Nelson the director of the award winning film "Freedom Riders," which was also a selection for Film Forward, an initiative of the Sundance Institute and the President's Committee on the Arts and the Humanities. Film Forward is about to kick off its second year on February 26 in Tucson, Arizona. For more information, go to and click on Film Forward.

You've been listening to Art works produced at the National Endowment for the Arts.

Adam Kampe is the musical supervisor.

Excerpts from "Freedom Riders" courtesy of Stanley Nelson and Firelight Media

Excerpt from Freedom, sung by Bayard Rustin, used courtesy of the Bayard Rustin Foundation.

 Excerpts from Calypso Freedom by Sweet Honey in the Rock from the CD, All for Freedom, used courtesy of Music for Little People.

Excerpt of "Calypso Freedom," written by Bernice Johnson Reagon and Evelyn Harris, from the cd, All for Freedom, used by permission of Songways Publishing o/b/o Songtalk Publishing Co.  

 Special thanks to the folks at the Sundance Film Festival and at Firelight Media.

 The Art Works podcast is posted every Thursday at And now you subscribe to Art Works at iTunes U—just click on the iTunes link on our podcast page.  Next week, the former poet-laureate, Rita Dove

To find out how art works in communities across the country, keep checking the Art Works blog, or follow us @NEAARTS on Twitter.  For the National Endowment for the Arts, I'm Josephine Reed. Thanks for listening.

Stanley Nelson discusses his award-winning documentary Freedom Riders. [29:39]