Skip to main content

You are here

Freedom Riders


Film & Theme

The Strategy of Nonviolence: Freedom Riders

The civil rights activism of the early 1960s—bus boycotts and lunch counter sit-ins— relied on the strategy of nonviolence, in which protesters would passively resist what they believed to be an unjust policy even when confronted with violent opposition. The success of this strategy hinged on a contradiction: an understanding that passive resistance would be met with violence.

African American students who grew up in the South were very familiar with the threat of violence that surrounded them. White students—especially those from outside the South—were told to expect violence, but many remained optimistic about the opposition they would face.  Student activists, white and black, were trained to expect violence even though it frequently went against their instincts to protect themselves.

In this clip, several Freedom Riders — Jim Zwerg, Hank Thomas, Frederick Leonard, and Julian Bond—talk about their reactions to the strategy of nonviolence but also explain the complicated necessity of that strategy.

Freedom Riders, “The Strategy” clip (running time: 4:58)

Questions for class discussion

  • For these young people what was most difficult about the strategy of nonviolence?
  • Why were the students willing to risk being hurt? What was the goal of the strategy of nonviolence?
  • What does Julian Bond mean by the contradiction at the heart of the civil rights movement?


For Teachers

Explore Created Equal in the Classroom:

- Equality Under the Law
- The Power of the Individual
- The Strategy of Nonviolence

Community Programs

The NEH Created Equal project uses the power of documentary films to encourage public conversations about the changing meanings of freedom and equality in America.

Changing America Exhibit

Find a "Changing America" exhibit in your community.