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Oprah show spotlights Freedom Riders 50th Anniversary

The Wrong Side of Murder Creek by Bob ZellnerThe Oprah show brought together today 179 participants from the 1961 Freedom Rides, in tribute to the fiftieth anniversary of the beginning of that movement. In attendance was NewSouth author Bob Zellner, a SNCC field secretary who describes his experience with the Freedom Rides in his memoir The Wrong Side of Murder Creek: A White Southerner in the Freedom Movement.

Participants in the Freedom Rides or related events that spoke to Oprah included Congressman John Lewis, Genevieve Hughes Houghton, Hank Thomas, and Diane Nash. Oprah told how Lewis was “beaten bloody by an angry white man” at a South Carolina bus terminal; that man, Elwin Wilson, later apologized to Lewis, and the two appeared on stage holding hands.

Houghton and Thomas spoke about the Freedom Riders’ arrival in Anniston, Alabama. There, a mob set the Freedom Riders’ bus on fire; Janie Forsyth, a twelve-year-old who tried to help the Riders, described the burning bus as “horrible … like a scene from hell.” The burning of that bus lead the residents of Anniston to form a biracial committee to desegregate the city; Rev. J. Phillips Noble, the first chair of that committee, recounts these events in his memoir Beyond the Burning Bus: The Civil Rights Revolution in a Southern Town.

A few weeks later, the Freedom Riders bus would arrive in Montgomery. In The Wrong Side of Murder Creek, Bob Zellner describes visiting that bus station in the aftermath of the terrible beatings the Riders endured. “Shards of broken glass and pieces of camera littered the street,” Zellner writes, “which looked like it was covered with isolated puddles of glistening red jelly … I remember being shocked when I saw that the burning pile consisted of the Freedom Riders’ busted suitcases, books, note books, and the odd toothbrush or deoderant.”

Zellner would go on to become a field secretary for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and participating in a number of civil rights protests, including being beaten severely in McComb, Mississippi. His story is also the subject of a new movie, Son of the South, with executive producer Spike Lee, in theaters in 2012.

In the television episode, Oprah called the Freedom Riders “American heroes,” noting that “this country would be a very different place” if not for them. NewSouth is pleased by a number of events taking place to celebrate the Freedom Riders, including a 2011 Freedom Rides student bus tour that will meet with Rev. Noble later in May, and a new PBS documentary about the Freedom Riders airing May 16.

Video from the Oprah Winfrey show episode about the Freedom Riders is available at the website. Rev. Noble’s Beyond the Burning Bus and Bob Zellner’s The Wrong Side of Murder Creek are both available in hardcover and ebook formats from NewSouth Books.