CHICAGO — On Wednesday, May 4, the 50th anniversary of the Freedom Rides, “The Oprah Winfrey Show” honored the brave and determined group of 436 Americans — men and women, Black and White — who joined together in a peaceful demonstration against racial injustice and segregation and risked their lives to change a nation forever.
Winfrey also reminded viewers to watch a special documentary on PBS on May 16, marking the 50th anniversary of the Freedom Rides during the summer of 1961.
In a powerful and historic hour, Oprah welcomed 178 surviving members — including Rep. John Lewis, Rev. C.T. Vivian and Atlanta businessman Hank Thomas — of the Freedom Rides in one of the largest gatherings of riders since 1961.
Said Winfrey, “As an African-American woman born in Mississippi in 1954 and raised in the south, I owe a deep debt of gratitude to the Freedom Riders, as do we all. I know my life would be different were it not for them.”
During the episode, Congressman Lewis sat with Elwin Wilson, the man who brutally beat him in South Carolina while he attempted to enter a “Whites Only” waiting room at a bus station. Joining Lewis were other Freedom Riders, who were among the 300 who were jailed at Mississippi’s State Penitentiary (Parchman Farm) to help overthrow segregation, sharing their personal recollections.
Also, Janie Forsyth McKinney, who was just a 12-year-old girl when she braved an angry mob to help the Freedom Riders, recounts the harrowing story of the bus that was set ablaze in front of her father’s grocery store. Hank Thomas called her “an angel” in the midst of all that hate.
Plus, U.S. Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy’s then assistant, John Seigenthaler, talks about the beating he received while he tried to protect protesters.
Winfrey added, “On behalf of all of America, may I say you make us proud to call ourselves American. … We stand in reverence for what you have done…as we look at the courage that you all showed at such a young age.”