After civil rights leaders John Lewis and C.T. Vivian passed away on the same day this summer, I poured over their biographies, in awe of their bravery and legacy. The national reckoning with racism that gathered momentum this summer showed that history isn’t really in the past; it’s all around us and influences our everyday lives.

So, now seems like a fitting time to revisit Freedom Riders, Stanley Nelson’s stunning documentary from 2010. It tells the story of the hundreds of civil rights activists who challenged segregation by traveling on buses through the Deep South in 1961. Despite facing extreme violence, their peaceful protests changed the course of the civil rights movement.

I’ve read about the Freedom Rides and seen them portrayed vividly in movies like The Butler, but this was the first time I heard from the Freedom Riders themselves in their own words and learned their individual, and poignant, stories from the road.

Here are ten things I learned watching Freedom Riders.

1. Despite anti-segregation laws, traveling through the South was still difficult and dangerous for Black people before the Freedom Rides.

In 1944, a woman named Irene Morgan refused to give up her bus seat in Virginia, and took her case all the way to the Supreme Court. In 1946’s Morgan v. Virginia decision, the Court struck down segregation laws for interstate travel. But in the South, companies like Greyhound were able to hide behind state laws and continue segregation on their buses. “Travel was humiliating for Black people” at the time, Freedom Rider Diane Nash said in the film.

2. The nonviolent Freedom Rides were considered a “radical” idea at the time.

The idea of aggressively and intentionally challenging segregation laws in the Deep South was considered radical by people who opposed civil rights, and by people within the civil rights movement. Even Martin Luther King Jr. did not support the Freedom Rides at the beginning, telling the activists they would be doing more harm than good and warning them not to travel through Alabama, in particular. Despite the pushback, the young freedom riders forged ahead, training in the principles of nonviolence. “By using nonviolence, people see the contrast between your dignified, disciplined confrontation of the wrong and then the reaction of violence,” explained Rev. James M Lawson Jr., Nashville Christian Leadership Council, in the film.

3. Violence first erupted in Anniston, Alabama, signaling the danger of the Freedom Rides, but not stopping them.

The first set of Freedom Rides, organized by the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), set out from Washington, DC with the goal of ending in New Orleans. They traveled easily through the first few states, but that changed when they crossed over into Alabama. In the town of Anniston, a mob of Klansmen attacked the bus, breaking windows and firebombing it. The riders escaped the bus, gasping for breath and covered in blood. “It was horrible, it was like a scene from hell,” said Janie Forsyth Mckinney, who witnessed the attack. “It was the worst suffering I’d ever heard.”

4. The Freedom Riders learned they couldn’t count on any protection from the police. In fact, most authorities actively allowed the violence.

The other bus traveling to Birmingham didn’t know what happened in Anniston as they entered the city, which was considered one of the most racially hostile cities in the South. There, Bull Connor, the city’s Commissioner of Public Safety, allowed Birmingham’s police department to make an agreement with the Ku Klux Klan that gave them time to attack the Freedom Riders. When the riders arrived at the bus station, they were beaten, along with members of the media. The violent attacks made headlines, and resulted in dramatic photos splashed across newspapers.

5. The Kennedy administration struggled to respond to the Freedom Rides.

President Kennedy eventually stepped in to protect the Freedom Riders, but not before wavering greatly in his response. Early in President Kennedy’s presidency, his administration was focused on the Soviet Union and the escalating Cold War. President Kennedy saw the Freedom Riders’ movement as a distraction as he went to Europe to meet with world leaders like Nikita Khrushchev. The image of America as a leader in freedom on the world stage was tarnished by reports of injustice and violence against a minority community. “It became clear that civil rights leaders had to do something desperate, something dramatic to get the Kennedys’ attention,” historian Raymond Arsenault said about the movement.

6. The Nashville Freedom Riders knew they were making big sacrifices and risking extreme violence.

After the first wave of Freedom Rides ended in violence, some riders hesitated to continue, but ultimately the movement inspired a new group of students ready to step in. Students in Nashville started organizing a ride, despite the sacrifices they’d have to make, even signing their own wills and testaments. “It meant dropping out of school in the midst of our final exams. And for some of us, we were the first generation to go to college,” said Bernard Lafayette Jr., a student at American Baptist Theological Seminary. “As a white person, I knew I could be the primary focus of most of the violence that took place because I was a disgrace to the white race, I was a traitor. I knew if anyone would get beaten or killed, it would be me,” said Jim Zwerg, who was ultimately beaten violently in Montgomery.

7. A meeting at the First Baptist Church was a pivotal turning point for the federal government’s response.

After violence in Montgomery, civil rights leaders held a mass meeting at the First Baptist Church to finally show support for the Freedom Riders, who were greeted as heroes. Outside, a mob gathered and started throwing rocks, and the attendees were forced to stay inside. Federal marshals were sent in to keep order, but were ineffective at controlling the growing mob. The civil rights leaders pressured the federal government for more protection, and Martin Luther King Jr. had a series of dramatic phone calls with Attorney General Kennedy, affirming the movement’s power with a direct line to Washington. President Kennedy threatened to take action, and Alabama’s governor finally initiated martial law and brought in the National Guard. “People rejoiced… They knew that for the first time, the Kennedy administration had identified with their side, at the side of civil rights,” John Lewis said about the event in the film.

8. The Freedom Rides attracted people from all races, religions, and political affiliations.

Over the course of seven months, the Freedom Rides inspired people from all over the country to take action and join in the multi-racial and multi-generational movement. Ultimately, more than 400 people of different races and religions participated. “The freedom rides introduced the notion that there were fair-minded white persons who were willing to sacrifice themselves, their bodies and their lives because they too believed that the country had an obligation to uphold its constitutional mandate of liberty and justice for all,” Delores Boyd, who attended the meeting at First Baptist Church as a child, said in the film.

9. As Freedom Riders were arrested in Mississippi, Parchman Farm became a continuation of the movement.

As the Rides moved from Alabama into Mississippi and garnered more media attention, the Kennedy administration made a deal with state leaders that the National Guard and local police would keep the Freedom Riders safe, and in exchange the federal government wouldn’t stop local police from arresting them for “breaching the peace.” As a result, more than 300 Freedom Riders were sent to the dreaded Mississippi State Penitentiary, known as Parchman Farm. Despite harsh conditions, it became part of the Freedom Riders’ journey through the South. It became “almost a university of nonviolence” according to historian Raymond Arsenault. “We had moments there to learn and teach each other the way of nonviolence, the way of love, the way of peace,” John Lewis said.

10. The Freedom Rides resulted in a major victory in the civil rights movement.

After many arrests, Robert Kennedy asked the Freedom Riders for a “cooling off period” and requested the Interstate Commerce Commission (ICC) to formally comply with anti-segregation orders. In September of 1961, the ICC finally issued an order removing segregation on interstate bus and trains, removing many travel barriers for Black people in the South. The movement’s success with nonviolence paved the way for more civil rights victories in the future.

Watch Freedom Riders on Sunday, October 11 at 5pm on GBH 2, or stream it now.