In 1960, the Supreme Court decision in Boynton v. Virginia outlawed segregation on public transportation. A year later, the Interstate Commerce Commission had done little to enforce the ruling, and Jim Crow practices remained in use. To draw attention to the lag, the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) organized “Freedom Rides” throughout the South that led to the end of segregation in bus and rail stations throughout the United States—considered one of the biggest victories in the civil rights movement.

On February 15, NYU Law and Stroock & Stroock & Lavan hosted a special screening of the new PBS documentary Freedom Riders. The film tells the story of the six-month period in 1961 when more than 400 civil rights activists "from all strata of American society—black and white, young and old, male and female, Northern and Southern" rode on interstate buses across the southern United States. The screening was preceded by a panel discussion featuring the filmmakers, Laurens Grant and Stanley Nelson; former New York Court of Appeals Judge George Bundy Smith; and former New York Supreme Court Appellate Division Judge Ernst Rosenberger.

Smith participated in the rides and was among 11 arrested in a bus station in Montgomery, Alabama, for breach of the peace. The charge was eventually overturned by the Supreme Court in 1965, while Rosenberger volunteered as an attorney for CORE.

Both former justices cited childhood experiences as the major influences in their lives: Smith grew up in racially segregated Washington, D.C., and early on set the goal of “helping Thurgood Marshall.” Rosenberger was born in Hamburg; in 1935 his family left Germany, where, he said, judges often “did the wrong things” during Hitler’s reign. “I wanted to be one of the judges who did the right things,” Rosenberger said.

The film is based on Raymond Arsenault's 2006 book Freedom Riders: 1961 and the Struggle for Racial Justice.

Posted on February 24, 2011