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The Legacy of the 1961 Freedom Rides

The White House presents a screening of the film "Freedom Riders", documenting the 1961 Freedom Rides, for an audience of law students and participants in the civil rights movement.

On Wednesday, October 19, law students, participants in the civil rights movement, and others will gather at the White House for a screening of Freedom Riders and a panel discussion of the legal legacy of the 1961 Freedom Rides. The screening is part of National Endowment for the Humanities’ (NEH) “Bridging Cultures through Law” film series.

NEH is proud to have funded Freedom Riders, which recently won three Emmy® Awards. The film chronicles the inspirational story of how more than four hundred black and white Americans challenged Jim Crow laws in the Deep South through nonviolent action and created great change. Their courage in the face of coercive abuse helped lead to the end of segregation on buses and trains and in public facilities. Produced by Stanley Nelson and Laurens Grant, and based on Raymond Arsenault’s 2006 book, Freedom Riders: 1961 and the Struggle for Racial Justice, Freedom Riders premiered on PBS’s American Experience.

The film screening will be followed by a panel discussion with Raymond Arsenault (the author), Diane Nash (the lead organizer of the Freedom Riders), and John Seigenthaler (an assistant to Attorney General Robert Kennedy). The discussion will also draw on the experiences of seven other Freedom Riders who will be in the audience, as well as students who recently recreated the bus journey taken by the Freedom Riders this past spring.

The panel discussion is sure to be lively and thought-provoking. It will be streamed live on Wednesday at 5 p.m. EDT at

Laws aren’t created in nor do they exist in a vacuum. They are the product of the culture that created them and reflect its values. This is particularly true about civil rights, which have undergone a radical transformation over the course of the nation’s history. NEH is pleased to be able to help the American public and the next  generation of lawyers understand the historical context of the civil rights movement so that we can better access where we are today and what issues need to be addressed in the future.

Earlier this year, the President issued a Proclamation observing the 50th anniversary of the Freedom Rides, available here.

Jim Leach is the Chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities