This winter term, join the Center for Community Engagement’s AmeriCorps MLK Day of Service documentary discussion on Freedom Riders by Stanley Nelson.

Freedom Riders Documentary Film poster

In honor of Martin Luther King Jr. Day and CCE’s participation in AmeriCorps’ MLK Day of Service, the Center for Community Engagement invites you to participate in our discussion of the documentary Freedom Riders by Stanley Nelson. Our aim is to hold a deep conversation focusing on the Freedom Riders’ purpose, the democracy in action, and its larger connection to the civil rights movement as well as our current moments. 

The discussion will be held on Wednesday, February 10th from 7-8:30 pm EST via Zoom and will be open to the public. The documentary is accessible to Middlebury students, staff, and faculty on Kanopy here. Alums, family members, community members, and others interested in watching the documentary can freely access it on PBS here

Please watch the documentary prior to the evening discussion and at your convenience, although we suggest you watch it 1-2 days before our discussion on Feb 10th.

Register in advance for the Freedom Riders Documentary Discussion on February 10, 2021 from 7-8:30 pm EST via ZOOM


Documentary Discussion Questions:

  • Why do you think CORE wanted the Freedom Riders who were selected to be a diverse group? What is the importance behind who makes up the movement?
  • There is a scene in which John Seigenthaler shares about growing up with black women workers and reflects by saying - “they were invisible women, I can’t believe I didn’t see them, we were blind to the reality of racism and change”— with this silent and untold presence of black women, how do you think race is taught or how we learn about race?
  • Defenders of segregation justify by saying — “everyone knows to keep the blacks and whites separate and it would be better if they kept to themselves” —  how do you think those who believe this and their ideas on race shaped the community? How do we see that today?
  • Reflect on the role of the media — How did it impact people’s ideas about the country, both within the country and abroad?
  • There is injustice in all aspects of life, why do you think CORE focused on buses
  • Songs and the act of singing play an enormous role in the struggle - how does that keep the movement alive? (buses are coming, we are going on the highway, etc) 
  • What is the story usually taught about the Kennedys? How does it contrast to the dangerous indifference depicted in the film? Why is JFK’s reputation in regard to civil rights normally represented in a positive light?
  • What misconceptions did you have about the Freedom Riders going into the documentary?
  • How did it feel as a College student to watch a story about College students who dropped out of school to risk their lives as full-time activists? How did your feelings change as the story progressed to include over 400 young freedom riders?
  • What did you think about the inclusion of Alabama Gov. John Patterson as an interview subject? Why would the filmmakers not have pressed him to answer more difficult questions? His role in the story is very much that of the villain — What impact does it have to interview a “villain” and not ask the hard questions? What would you want to ask him?
  • Where do you see tension within the activists? What does that tell you about the movement? 
  • The fable of the civil rights movement is that it was all based in the South, white activists/advocates were “saviors,” the movement was unified, and there were only a few key figures. How does the film contribute to this myth? How does it dispel it? What is the benefit of relying on tropes in telling the story of the freedom riders? What is the harm?
  • What similarities do you see in the police’s actions towards the freedom riders and police’s actions towards BLM activists today? What scenes from the film/contemporary incidents stand out to you? Why, in spite of years of police brutality and indifference, would many white people find violent police behavior “surprising”?
  • In what ways does the film perpetuate white savior ideology? Why is this problematic?
  • Why were many white people, such as John Seigenthaler, surprised by the activists’ perseverance in the face of violence?
  • In what ways do white allies act as barriers between black people and harm? How does their role contribute to the larger movement?
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Center for Community Engagement
Middlebury College
Middlebury, VT 05753