Freedom Riders Freedom Riders

Even with so many season finales and cliffhangers clamoring for our attention this month, I doubt you'll find two hours of TV more riveting, harrowing and inspiring than Freedom Riders, the latest triumph from PBS' American Experience series.

As heralded recently on The Oprah Winfrey Show (which exposure could and should boost this excellent documentary's profile), this audacious chapter from our civil-rights past is a story of heroic idealism and non-violent activism colliding with some of the most virulent forces of hate, prejudice and fear.

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Deftly structured by filmmaker Stanley Nelson in a day-by-day chronology of mounting tension, largely narrated by those who were there (including the opposition), Freedom Riders focuses mainly on the everyday people, black and white and from all creeds and backgrounds, who took part in this treacherous road trip 50 years ago. Their purpose: to ride side-by-side on commercial buses into the Deep South, risking their lives to expose racial segregation by flouting Jim Crow laws in hot zones including Alabama and Mississippi."We didn't have a sense of fear," says one of the first riders, embarking on a modest caravan of two buses. That soon changed, as angry mobs in Alabama confronted these so-called "agitators," torching one of the buses and assaulting the victims in "a scene from hell," as a local onlooker recalls.These and other violent speed bumps didn't derail the effort. Instead, more waves of riders (eventually totaling more than 400) pushed through to Mississippi, where mass arrests only added to the media frenzy. Vintage footage shows how the crusade escalates into an international embarrassment for the Kennedy administration, previously more preoccupied with foreign affairs."They became the shock troops of the movement," says historian Raymond Arsenault. Attention was paid then, change was achieved, and Freedom Riders assures their astonishing story still has resonance a half-century later.

Freedom Riders airs Monday, 9/8c, on PBS (check listings)

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