Jim Crow signs
Photo: Library of Congress
The year was 1961. John F. Kennedy was sworn in as America's 35th president, and the Camelot era was, for many, a time of hope and optimism. That same year, the United States put its first man into space, and popular TV shows like Leave It to Beaver and The Andy Griffith Show depicted the all-American life.

But those idyllic images were not reflective of life for many African-Americans, especially in the Deep South. Despite efforts to end segregation, Jim Crow laws still forced black people to use separate water fountains, public restrooms and waiting rooms. And on buses and trains, black citizens were told to sit in the back.

In 1946 and again in 1960, the U.S. Supreme Court outlawed these racist practices, but many white southerners continued to follow their own set of rules.

Then, in the spring and summer of 1961, a courageous coalition of men and women—black and white, young and old—boarded buses in protest of these discriminatory practices. They called themselves the Freedom Riders.

"For many of you watching, I know that this may be the first time you're even hearing about the Freedom Rides, but let me tell you, if it were not for these American heroes, this country would be a very different place right now," Oprah says. "The lives of millions of you watching at home would be dramatically different. I know my life would be were it not for them."