Welcome Raymond Arsenault, and Host, Mauimom.

[As a courtesy to our guests, please keep comments to the book. Please take other conversations to a previous thread. -bev]

Freedom Riders: 1961 and the Struggle for Racial Justice

Mauimon, Host:

The cover of Freedom Riders: 1961 and the Struggle for Racial Justice features a dramatic picture of a burning bus and the mug shots of Freedom Riders who’d been jailed in the notorious Parchman Mississippi State Prison. Most of us are familiar with these images. Ray Arsenault’s book provides the stories behind the pictures — and so much more.

As he began his work on this subject in 1998, Professor Arsenault, who is the John Hope Franklin Professor of Southern History at the University of South Florida, discovered that

nearly four decades had passed since the end of the Freedom Rides, yet historians had failed to produce a single book or article on the subject.

He set out to remedy that deficiency.

First published in 2006, Freedom Riders inspired the PBS program of the same name, which premiered nationally on May 16. You can view it here.

The PBS show is valuable: it gives immediate visual evidence of the intensity of the emotions, of the danger and courage, of the anxiety. But the book on which it is based will give you even more.

As we look back 50 years, Freedom Riders provides a picture of the prevailing prejudice and injustice in Dixie that may be hard for those of us who didn’t see it with our own eyes to imagine: “separate” restrooms, waiting rooms and water fountains; “back of the bus” seating; the inability to be served at restaurants and lunch counters; the open hostility to any intermingling of black and white, and, above all, the belief by segregationists that defense of their “way of life” justified violence.

Professor Arsenault has been hailed not just for chronicling the events of the Freedom Rides, but for “revealing the pathology of the South” and demonstrating that:

This was a society not simply of violent mobs but of judges who flagrantly disregarded the Constitution, police officers who conspired with criminals and doctors who refused to treat the injured. Southern newspapers almost universally condemned the riders as “hate mongers” and outside agitators (even though about half had been born and raised in the South). [Eric Foner, New York Times]

Having watched the PBS program, and as wonderful as I think it is, I want to tell you that Professor Arsenault’s book provides much more.

First, it gives the background. The Freedom Rides did not just spring to life in 1961. Professor Arsenault takes us back to 1944, and the actions of a courageous young woman, Irene Morgan, who refused to give up her seat on a Virgina bus. Morgan vs. the Commonwealth of Virginia made its way to the Supreme Court, which ruled in 1946 that Virginia’s 1930 law prohibiting racially mixed seating on public conveyances violated the Constitution, at least as applied to interstate transit. [Numerous issues remained unresolved: what about intrastate transit; what about other means of transportation such as railways; when and how would this decision be enforced?]

The Morgan decision did not result in the southern states taking down their “white” and “colored” signs, and they continued to enforce segregation in buses and bus terminals throughout the south. This produced a classic schism between the forces working for change: would progress be gained via the courts, or was more direct action needed?

The disagreement focused on whether they should attempt what was to become the “first” Freedom Ride, the Journey of Reconciliation (1947). While Thurgood Marshall and the NAACP preferred utilizing court cases, Bayard Rustin had a decidedly different view:

Unjust social laws and patterns do not change because supreme courts deliver just opinions. One need merely observe the continued practices of jim crow in interstate travel six months after the Supreme Court’s decision [Morgan] to see the necessity of resistance. Social progress comes from struggle; all freedom demands a price.

At times freedom will demand that its followers go into situations where even death is to be faced . . . Direct action means picketing, striking and boycotting as well as disobedience against unjust conditions…

At the same time, in what may seem quaint or foreign to us today, those urging action had a deep and abiding belief in non-violence. Rustin, in the same letter:

This is why Negroes and whites who participate in direct action must pledge themselves to non-violence and word and deed. For in this way alone can the inevitable violence be reduced to a minimum. The simple truth is this: unless we find non-violent methods which can be used by the rank-and-file who more and more tend to resist, they will more and more resort to violence. And court-room argumentation will not suffice for the activization which the Negro masses are today demanding.

Professor Arsenault deftly and engagingly lays out the many personalities of this phase — names that have become familiar to any student of civil rights struggles: James Farmer, Bayard Rustin, Thurgood Marshall, James Peck, A. Philip Randolph, Mary McLeod Bethune, the Congress of Racial Equality [CORE]. Again, to those of us looking back 50-60 years, these may be recognizable, landmark names, but Professor Arsenault details the differences in philosophies and struggles among these personalities, and provides a view of what a complex time this was.

The Journey of Reconciliation did take place in 1947, but it was followed by a “fallow period” until the waves of Freedom Rides began in 1961.

Michael Kenney of the Boston Globe summarized Professor Arsenault’s comprehensive story of those rides, calling it a record of:

strategy sessions, church vigils, bloody assaults, mass arrests, political maneuverings and personal anguish [which] captures the mood and the turmoil, the excitement and the confusion of the movement and the time.

Freedom Riders meticulously recounts each ride. In addition to chronicling the details, the book also explores:

The rise of the student movement, and the increasing involvement of students in planning and executing Freedom Rides;

JFK’s irritation that the Freedom Rides were diverting his attention [and press attention] from his Cold War battles;

RFK’s increasing involvement with, and sympathy towards the Freedom Riders, with particular attention to the actions of his heroic assistant, John Seigenthaler;

The actions of the FBI, and of various state authorities

But, as Professor Arsenault remarked in a August 8, 2010 op-ed in the St. Petersburg Times, “don’t let the names of our heroes be forgotten.”

Above all, this is a story of heroes: the new set of names by now familiar to us — Martin Luther King, John Lewis, Diane Nash, Robert Williams, Hank Thomas, and even Marion Barry (!) — as well as the less familiar names of those who rode, planned, sacrificed and endured. The 2006 edition of Freedom Riders contains an extensive index of the participants in each ride, their history, and, when available, what has happened to them.

Wait, there’s more!! In addition to asking Professor Arsenault about Freedom Riders, this book salon will give you the opportunity to hear about his continuing work. For example, for the last 6 years he’s taught his graduate students a course which, as he describes it:

was largely experiential, consisting of three nights of introductory seminars followed by an intense seven-day civil rights tour of the Deep South. The heart of the course brought them face to face with an array of movement veterans, ex-Freedom Riders, civil rights attorneys, federal judges, journalists, and ordinary Southerners, black and white.

Personally, I can’t wait to learn more about that!!

For those of us currently concerned about bringing justice to our unjust world, hearing the voices of these Freedom Riders, and of the author who has so well chronicled their history and messages, presents an invaluable opportunity.

I’ll close with the following remark from Professor Arsenault:

As citizens of an imperfect democracy, we all share the responsibility of connecting the present and the future to a meaningful and usable past.

Please join us. Your questions and comments will facilitate Professor Arsenault’s bringing of these remarkable stories to us, and will help us understand their relevance for today.

111 Responses to “FDL Book Salon Welcomes Raymond Arsenault, Freedom Riders: 1961 and the Struggle for Racial Justice”

Mauimom May 29th, 2011 at 1:56 pm

Welcome, Professor Arsenault. We’re delighted you could join us.

BevW May 29th, 2011 at 1:58 pm

Ray, Welcome to the Lake.

Mauimom, Thank you for Hosting today’s Book Salon.

Ray Arsenault May 29th, 2011 at 2:02 pm
In response to BevW @ 2

I am online and eager to have our discussion.

Mauimom May 29th, 2011 at 2:04 pm

Terrific. I have so many questions for you that I’ll have to restrain myself to give others an opportunity to ask.

First, I guess, obviously, what prompted you to write this book — more than 40 years after the events?

Ray Arsenault May 29th, 2011 at 2:08 pm

My earliest fascination with the Freedom Rides began when I was a 19-year-old student/research assistant at Princeton. I worked for a young historian from Birmingham, Sheldon Hackney (later director of NEH and president of Tulane and Penn) who introduced me to a hidden world of black and white civil rights activists. As a transplanted New Englander growing up in the South, I was already deeply interested in matters of race, civil rights, and regional culture, but Sheldon’s commitment to civil rights and civil rights scholarship drew me in–and I was hooked for life.

Mauimom May 29th, 2011 at 2:10 pm

I wanted to let you know that in 1961 I too was a high school junior — in Houston TX.

What was the most surprising or unexpected information you discovered in the course of your research for this book?

Mauimom May 29th, 2011 at 2:12 pm

I was wondering how your work on this book was different from “traditional” historical research — or at least what I believe “traditional” research to be like.

You weren’t holed up in a library perusing musty tomes, but we actually out talking with people.

What was that like, and did you feel any “pull” of a need to be “objective”?

Ray Arsenault May 29th, 2011 at 2:15 pm

The bottom-up nature of the movement, as opposed to the common understanding that the movement was a top-down charismatically led movement. The physical and moral courage of the young Freedom Riders seemed to stem from an extraordinarily deep belief in social justice, that would not allow them to pass off the responsibility to anyone else. They had wisdom beyond their years.

Mauimom May 29th, 2011 at 2:18 pm

Perhaps this is jumping ahead a bit, but I couldn’t help but be moving by the STUDENT involvement in all phases of the movement.

I know you teach and lead students on sojourns through the civil rights sites in the south, meeting leaders, participants, etc.

What do you see in your students today? Do you think we’ll be able to rely on them to “lead” this nation in the many ways it needs?

What sort of “transformative experiences” [as you refer to them] do you see occurring among your students as you take them on this journey?

Ray Arsenault May 29th, 2011 at 2:20 pm
In response to Mauimom @ 7

I discovered early-on that oral history interviews would advance my understanding of the Freedom Rides well beyond what I could discover in printed souces–though I spent years going through archival materials, which were voluminous and very revealing in their own right. The scope of the required research was beyond anything I could have imagined when I begqan working on the book in 1998, but I felt an enormous responsibility to follow through with the project, wherever it took me, considering that no other historian had yet written a book on the Freedom Rides.

Mauimom May 29th, 2011 at 2:20 pm
In response to Ray Arsenault @ 8

I thought the PBS film did a great job in conveying the danger and what must have been sheer terror for those who went through this experience.

Mauimom May 29th, 2011 at 2:22 pm

Was there any single incident, moment or event in the Freedom Rides that you think was most illuminative or provided a holographic insight into the power of this story and this movement.

Mauimom May 29th, 2011 at 2:24 pm

I understand that you are “recreating” the Freedom Rides for some of your students?

Tell us about that. Is this different from the journeys your describe in your articles?

Ray Arsenault May 29th, 2011 at 2:24 pm
In response to Mauimom @ 9

I just returned from a 10-day re-creation of the original Freedom Ride, from Washington to New Orleans. The 40 students onh the bus, selected from more than 1,000 applicants, were remarkable and inspiring–and deeply engaged in a wide variety of social justice issues. I feel better about the prospects for a brighter future after my experiences with them. I am not sure how representative they are, but there is at least a glimmer of hope that new “Freedom Rides” are in the offing.

Mauimom May 29th, 2011 at 2:25 pm

As a former teacher, I really want to hear more about your students: what moves them, how do they change as a result of taking your course and/or going on the excursions, do they see work ahead of them in today’s society, are they committed to doing it and inspired by the Freedom Rides?

CTuttle May 29th, 2011 at 2:25 pm

Aloha, Ray and MM…! Mahalo for writing the book and being here at the Lake today, Ray…! Mahalo for hosting, MM…!

papau May 29th, 2011 at 2:26 pm

I was not near a Freedom Rider bus in 1961, but in the spring of 1962 (it might have been 63 as mind is not clear about the date) I recall the three buses waiting alongside the Boston Common – and wanting to join – and unable to toss everything aside to do so. One of my many might have been moments.

I really liked the kids that were going – but back then I was not into planning ahead – and never did learn that habit all that well – and had done nothing to arrange my life or to get a seat on the bus.

I really admire those kids – it was going out into the unknown with the likelyhood of pain despite a kids certainty of their own immortality. Other than a few flyers on a few dorm entrances, I do not recall much organizing to get kids to go.

Mauimom May 29th, 2011 at 2:27 pm
In response to Ray Arsenault @ 14

Tell us more about that. What is there about your students that inspires your optimism?

If you’ve hung around The Lake for any length of time, you know that we can be a bit “pessimistic,” as we chronicle problem after problem.

Ray Arsenault May 29th, 2011 at 2:27 pm
In response to Mauimom @ 11

I agree. Stanley Nelson is a gifted documentary film maker, and I worked closely with his crew for more than 2 years. A lot of important material and many nuances ended up on the cutting room floor, but he got the essential truth right.

May 29th, 2011 at 2:28 pm
In response to Ray Arsenault @ 14

Thanks or that, Ray. I have seen comments here, wondering where the new voices will come from.
I’m encouraged by the news of young people getting involved. Of course.

Mauimom May 29th, 2011 at 2:29 pm

Another thing in your book that surprised me was the deep devotion to non-violence, and the training to make sure its practices were adhered to.

There might have been, as papau describes, flyers soliciting “riders,” but at least for the first Rides, there was a lot of training and discipline.

Mauimom May 29th, 2011 at 2:29 pm
In response to Ray Arsenault @ 19

I was curious about that “cutting room floor”!!

tuezday May 29th, 2011 at 2:30 pm

Professor Arsenault, until a recent Democracy Now interview with some of the Freedom Riders I was pretty ignorant of the violence and real struggles, hardship and personal sacrifice the Freedom Riders endured. I haven’t read your book, but by my own personal reaction to the Democracy Now interviews, I’m guessing it is sorely needed.

Mauimom May 29th, 2011 at 2:31 pm

A year or so ago, I saw an exhibit at the Skirball Center in LA that featured pictures of the Freedom Riders, individual descriptions of them “then” and “now.”

I assumed that was based on your book, but was unable to find any reference at the Skirball site.

Was it? It was incredibly moving. I’d love to see it travel.

Mauimom May 29th, 2011 at 2:33 pm
In response to tuezday @ 23

Tuezday, I urge you to both read the book and see the PBS documentary. [There's a link to it above.]

The documentary will give you the visual, visceral feel for the violence and hatred [and the courage and patience of the Riders]. Ray’s book will give you more details and context.

Ray Arsenault May 29th, 2011 at 2:33 pm
In response to Mauimom @ 13

I will be leading a group of 40 law students and history graduate students on a 7-day civil rights tour from June 3 to June 10. This is the 6th year that I have done this, and each year I am struck by the power of the experience–for me and the students. They are not the same people after seven or eight days of immersion in this experience–meeting civil rights veterans, judges, journalists, etc., I wish everyone could go through this experience, and now with the film there is a chance for millions of Americans to get some sense of this.

May 29th, 2011 at 2:34 pm

Mods. I just just left a response which has not been posted.
While all y’all are tring to get more Members, maybe you could be more Accepting?
Figure it out, figure it out?
Jane. Read.

Mauimom May 29th, 2011 at 2:34 pm
In response to Ray Arsenault @ 26

They are not the same people after seven or eight days of immersion in this experience–meeting civil rights veterans, judges, journalists, etc.,

In what ways are they different? Do you see them developing a commitment to future action?

Ray Arsenault May 29th, 2011 at 2:36 pm
In response to papau @ 17

As one person recently commented, “It is never too late to get on the bus.” Much of the social justice agenda remains unfulfilled.

Mauimom May 29th, 2011 at 2:36 pm

I know that you appeared on the Oprah show in conjunction with the PBS film.

In what ways did that increase awareness of these issues? Any possibility of future publicity along these lines.

[It really was moving, seeing the individual riders. Oprah ought to develop something with that!!]

Mauimom May 29th, 2011 at 2:37 pm

I was also struck, as I re-read portions of the book for this discussion, at the absolute callowness of the Kennedy administration.

The “legend” is that they were great. Not so much.

Talk some about that.

Mauimom May 29th, 2011 at 2:38 pm

Do you see any parallels between the “politics” of the Kennedy administration and what we’re seeing currently?

Ray Arsenault May 29th, 2011 at 2:39 pm
In response to Mauimom @ 24

That exhibit was based on Eric Etheridge’s book, Breach of Peace, which offers photos and brief bios of the Freedom Riders incarcerated in Parchman Prison in 1961. Eric did a great job of interviewing and photographing many of the former Freedom Riders.

Mauimom May 29th, 2011 at 2:41 pm
In response to Ray Arsenault @ 14

I just returned from a 10-day re-creation of the original Freedom Ride, from Washington to New Orleans. The 40 students on the bus, selected from more than 1,000 applicants,

Wow, that is phenomenal that you got such a response!!!

Encouraging, and a testament to your power as an educator.

Mauimom May 29th, 2011 at 2:42 pm
In response to Ray Arsenault @ 33

Thanks. That helps. I was confused. When your book came out, I kept thinking, “I’ve seen this before.”

Ray Arsenault May 29th, 2011 at 2:43 pm
In response to Mauimom @ 31

The Kennedy brothers were very political and restrained in their response to the Freedom Rides. But they did move significantly if haltingly in the direction of engagement with civil rights issues. The film does not have time to explore all of the backing and filling during the years 1961-63, but my book tries to give a more complete account of the Kennedy brothers reluctant journey.

Mauimom May 29th, 2011 at 2:44 pm

I saw a comment somewhere, in reference to the 2006 edition of your book, that there was a wealth of information in the “index” about the individual Freedom Riders, and that someone should be mining/developing it.

Is that in the works?

I’m sure many of us wonder what happened to the Freedom Riders — not just the well-known names, but the “ordinary” citizens.

tuezday May 29th, 2011 at 2:44 pm
In response to Mauimom @ 25

Yes, I will read the book and watch the movie.

I wonder though how many people like me are/were so totally ignorant of the violence and hatred. Now in my defense, I was born in late 61 and grew up in NW Jersey in a typical childhood bubble. But I went to college in Greensboro, NC where the Woolworth lunch counter incident occurred and later the KKK killings. And still the violence and hate were sugar coated or I was sleeping.

Mauimom May 29th, 2011 at 2:46 pm
In response to Ray Arsenault @ 36

my book tries to give a more complete account of the Kennedy brothers reluctant journey.

That’s what I was referring to.

One reason I keep urging folks to read your book is the number of things that were [of necessity] left out of the film. This was one of them.

The fact that in his 1962 “civil rights” speech, Kennedy didn’t even MENTION the Freedom Riders, but focused solely on the ICC decree was telling [and surprising].

Ray Arsenault May 29th, 2011 at 2:48 pm
In response to Mauimom @ 30

The Oprah Show on the Freedom rides was quite an event, unprecedented in the history of civil rights commemoration. She flew 180 Freedom Riders to Chicago, and that allowed them to convene a 4-day 50th anniversary conference following the show. The conference had many of the elements of the movement of the 1960s–passion, engagement, fierce debate, and lots of singing. It was as if we had turned back the clock and were at a mass meeting in a movement church in Alabama.

Mauimom May 29th, 2011 at 2:48 pm
In response to tuezday @ 38

Ray has done such a valuable job in presenting this “history” for those born after it. And I am struck again and again over what this whole experience can teach us about social change, in light of our desire for it today.

I kept asking, as I read the book, “where are the people TODAY who are willing to endure what the Freedom Riders endured, and where are the leaders who will inspire them to do so?”

Ray, maybe you have thoughts on that question?

papau May 29th, 2011 at 2:49 pm
In response to Mauimom @ 21

“lot of training and discipline”

that training may well have been required of those that responded to those few dorm flyers – I did not respond and therefore do not know what the process was – but in a College town like Boston (and surrounding suburbs) there was a 40,000 strong pool of possible riders – so I suspect there was some selection as I only saw 3 buses that could take a little over 40 persons apiece.

SDS did not start in Boston until Spring of 63 (about 14 of us gathered on the Common to hand out flyers protesting the JFK decision to increase IKE’s 2000 advisors in Viet Nam to 16,000) so folks were just starting to wake up (Joan Baez had sung in the BU halls in 59 – skipping classes I assume – and had her second album by 62 – Bob Dylan had come to Boston to sing at the SugarShack (I handed out Sugarshack flyers because a friend of mine had gone to school in Minn with him – and despite the fact I thought his voice on that first Album he sent us in Fall 61 (may have been early in 62) was unintelligible). It all seems like so long ago.

Anti-war pulled at least small crowds in 62 and early 63 – civil rights awareness in the non-black community – while there were always many – did not start to get numbers until Summer 63.

Mauimom May 29th, 2011 at 2:50 pm
In response to Ray Arsenault @ 40

Do you think there will be any follow-up on this historic gathering?

Any chance of getting Oprah, with her powerful publicity machine, behind it and the related issues?

Ray Arsenault May 29th, 2011 at 2:51 pm
In response to Mauimom @ 37

The appendix is now online, and I need to update it with all of the new information uncovered since the original publication of my book in 2006. i heard so many new stories, and learned so many new biographical details, at the recent Freedom rider reunions, that I wish I had time to work on an update right now. But It will have to wait, I am afraid.

tuezday May 29th, 2011 at 2:51 pm
In response to Mauimom @ 41

“I kept asking, as I read the book, “where are the people TODAY who are willing to endure what the Freedom Riders endured, and where are the leaders who will inspire them to do so?”

That’s what I kept asking myself when listening to the DN interviews. In my mind the civil rights movement needs to be reinvigorated.

Mauimom May 29th, 2011 at 2:52 pm

What reactions did you get to the book when it was first published?

To the film?

To the “new” edition?

Ray Arsenault May 29th, 2011 at 2:54 pm
In response to papau @ 42

no actual Freedom Rider buses ever left from Boston. They must have been involved in the Route 40 campaign (DC to New Jersey) of 1962, or some later campaign. There were no actual Freedom Rides after 1961, though the termn “Freedom Rider” was often used as a generic substitute for “freedom Fighter” during the post-1961 years.

Mauimom May 29th, 2011 at 2:55 pm

Sorry to keep peppering you with questions when you haven’t had a chance to answer the prior ones.

Do your discussions with your students — or with those who attend your book events — focus on social change? Questions about how it occurs, what the Freedom Rides teach us, why it’s not occurring now?

Mauimom May 29th, 2011 at 2:58 pm

As a follow-up to 46, what does your book teach readers who are concerned about today’s political situation and policies about what we should be doing now to bring about the changes they might think most important — e.g., ending the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, eliminating tax breaks for the very rich, drastically reducing unemployment, or preserving valued programs such as Medicare and Medicaid?

Ray Arsenault May 29th, 2011 at 2:59 pm
In response to Mauimom @ 41

The social justice issues of today are no less pressing than in 1961, but an the absence of a readily identifiable foe–such as the Jim Crow lawas–makes it more difficult to mobilize nonviolent direct action on a mass scale. However, we do have social media to help us, something the Freedom Riders didn’t have in 1961. Now if we can just muster the same level of courage and commitment that they displayed, perhaps progressive supporters of human rights can make some headway.

papau May 29th, 2011 at 2:59 pm
In response to Ray Arsenault @ 29

Oh I got on the bus and by 68 was telling the Pru CEO (I was an actuarial hire and therefore had access) that the Pru had a responsibility for the Broad Street riots in that we hired light skinned black athletes and put them in a glass office on the first floor rather than trying to develop a workforce from the local population – one of the many jobs I had that hit a block when a liberal thought was spoken (Pru did hire pro black athletes into sales and management of other salespersons).

But by 73 the beard was gone, kids and mortgage gave me incentive to take it down a notch – but I still had a career of 5 to 19 year jobs as I never could keep my mouth closed!

BevW May 29th, 2011 at 3:00 pm
In response to tuezday @ 45

Tuezday, I have the same thoughts. Here it is 50 years later, and where is the major networks coverage, specials? This week History Channel is doing a new Gettysburg.

Mauimom May 29th, 2011 at 3:02 pm

To the extent your classes focus on issues of social justice, what issues do you highlight now? Or is your direction primarily historical?

I don’t know if you had a chance to read a fine article by Marcy Wheeler ["Emptywheel"]here about the towns in Michigan that were being “taken over” by the state government under an “Emergency Financial Management” law. Many of them were primarily African-American.

There seem a number of issues pertaining to racial justice that need to be addressed. I’m wondering if your students see this.

Ray Arsenault May 29th, 2011 at 3:02 pm
In response to Mauimom @ 46

The reactions to all three have been overwhelmingly positive. It has been very gratifying to receive a steady stream of e-mails and lettters with heaert-felt and sometimes guilt-ridden reactions to the Freedom Rider saga. Many people seem stunned that they knew next to nothing about this pivotal moment in the history of American democracy and the freedom struggle.

Mauimom May 29th, 2011 at 3:04 pm
In response to Ray Arsenault @ 50

Are there particular social justice issues you see inspiring students?

In thinking about this issue, I too had the reaction that it feels like we have a bunch of “smaller” issues, rather than this giant [segregation] issue that’s enforced by establishment brutality.

Makes organizing more difficult, but doesn’t make the effect any less.

papau May 29th, 2011 at 3:05 pm
In response to Ray Arsenault @ 47

Thanks –

The flyers stated “Freedom rides into the south” – it must have been as you note the DC campaign. I spoke to some of the kids – and recall only that they said they were “going south”.

I really always kicked myself for not being more aware back then.

Mauimom May 29th, 2011 at 3:06 pm

Many people seem stunned that they knew next to nothing about this pivotal moment in the history of American democracy and the freedom struggle.

Seems like the perfect opportunity/reason to go knocking on Oprah’s door and suggest she remedy this!!

Ray Arsenault May 29th, 2011 at 3:07 pm
In response to tuezday @ 45

I find myself asking these same questions, but increased understanding of the Freedom Rider story may help to empower some individuals looking for encouragement and historical precedents for successful grass roots activity on behalf of social justice. Knowledge is power, in a sense, and if we can substitute carefully rendered history for mythology, who knows what we might accomplish.

Mauimom May 29th, 2011 at 3:08 pm

Getting back to the subject of the book itself, I was struck by your observation that the Freedom Rides had a couple of “negative” effects — the “backlash” against those who were native residents and might, or might not have participated, and the hardening of resistance to the change the Riders were seeking.

Can you talk some about that?

Ray Arsenault May 29th, 2011 at 3:09 pm
In response to Mauimom @ 55

Among the 40 college students on the bus, the most animating issues seemed to be economic inequality, immigrants’ rights, gender equity, and LGBT issues.

tuezday May 29th, 2011 at 3:09 pm
In response to BevW @ 52

In my mind, no one wants to air this country’s dirty laundry and get confirmation the stains have worsened.

Mauimom May 29th, 2011 at 3:10 pm

Again, I found this a useful reminder to those of us who continue to agitate for change, and are discouraged by its slowness, that changes isn’t a linear process. There are a LOT of bumps along the way.

Mauimom May 29th, 2011 at 3:12 pm
In response to Ray Arsenault @ 60

Are they seeking and finding outlets where they can work on these issues?

Does the current economic situation make it more difficult for students to contemplate a life as a “social justice agitator”? Is “protest” confined to the college years, getting squelched when the need to find a job takes over?

mzchief May 29th, 2011 at 3:13 pm

Welcome Raymond, Mauimom and salon attendees. (For any lurkers, join us!)

Ray to your comment @ 25, I see this post, “Stetson Students Retrace Civil Rights Journey” (May 19, 2011). I think this is outstanding.

Ray Arsenault May 29th, 2011 at 3:13 pm
In response to BevW @ 52

It is going to be interesting as the Civil War sesquicenteenial proceeds against the backdrop of the 50th anniversaries of the Civil Rights episodes of the 1960s–i.e Birmingham, the March on Washington, Freedom Summer, the Civil rights Acts of 1964 and 1965. Will the major media outlets make any attempt to connect the Civil War and civil rights? I hope so, but I am not very optimistic. The History Channel, in particular, is such a disappointment.

Mauimom May 29th, 2011 at 3:15 pm
In response to Ray Arsenault @ 65

Again, OPRAH!!!!

Mauimom May 29th, 2011 at 3:16 pm

What information do you have about how the Freedom Rides changed the lives of those who participated in them? Is this something you, or another historian, is working on?

Ray Arsenault May 29th, 2011 at 3:17 pm
In response to mzchief @ 64

It is particularly interesting to involve law students in the civil rights tours. Connecting the legal and social history of the movement is crucial to any real understanding of what happened a half century ago–or what might happen today or in the future–and the law students become deeply engaged in the subject. I think we’ve ruined a lot of tax and corporate lawyers.

Mauimom May 29th, 2011 at 3:18 pm
In response to Ray Arsenault @ 65

Is there any places within the Administration that might devote energies to this?

I’m recalling your note that the Freedom Riders never received an invitation to the Kennedy White House. Knowing this WH and its extreme focus on politics, I’m not hopeful.

But we do at least have several African-American members of Congress. Perhaps they could push for more recognition.

Margot May 29th, 2011 at 3:19 pm

I’m looking forward to reading your book. We all need to be encouraged and uplifted, to
hear the voices of those who were Freedom Riders and were amazing examples to us, to remind ourselves that endeavor is not hopeless. It’s hard, but not hopeless.

Ray Arsenault May 29th, 2011 at 3:19 pm
In response to Mauimom @ 67

Almost to a person, the Freedom Riders became involved in social justice issues for life. They have never gotten off the bus. They are still “troublemakers” in the best sense of the term. They are still actively searching for the “beloved community.”

mzchief May 29th, 2011 at 3:19 pm
In response to Ray Arsenault @ 68

Good for you! Is there a way for non-student adults to be on future Freedom Ride tours?

Mauimom May 29th, 2011 at 3:21 pm
In response to Ray Arsenault @ 68

I think we’ve ruined a lot of tax and corporate lawyers.

Woo hoo. From what I hear, job prospects for them in those careers are disappearing anyway.

You talk in the book about “change not keeping up with expectations,” and cite this as one reason for the transformation of the Civil Rights movement, and the “take-over” [or at least increased role] by students.

Are you seeing any of this among your students today — “we’ve gotta step up, because the ‘adults’ aren’t getting the job done/have sold out/are compromised”?

Mauimom May 29th, 2011 at 3:23 pm
In response to Ray Arsenault @ 71

Wow. That is fabulous. It really WOULD be terrific — and inspirational — to hear more of those individual stories.

Mauimom May 29th, 2011 at 3:25 pm
In response to Ray Arsenault @ 71

My husband, while a student at Ohio State, went to Mississippi to register voters in 1964. He’s never “gotten off the bus” either.

His brother, 5 years older, maintains a criminal defense/constitutional rights practice in Cleveland.

Both were at the March on Washington.

Scarecrow May 29th, 2011 at 3:25 pm

Welcome, Ray. amazing stories. I get the sense that this crucial history has been lost in today’s discourse, yet we see a resurgence of voter suppression efforts in many states, especially from GOP governors. Are we destined to have to repeat much of this?

Mauimom May 29th, 2011 at 3:26 pm

I know that your current work is with college students and grad students.

Have you done any work to develop a curriculum for high schools and elementary schools?

Ray Arsenault May 29th, 2011 at 3:26 pm
In response to Mauimom @ 69

President Obama issued a proclamation naming May 2011 as “freedom Riders Month.” And he was tentatively scheduled to attend a screening and reception at the Newseum on May 6. But the post-Bin Laden activities intervened, and he went to Kentucky to celebrate the Navy Seals’ successful mission. Politically, I understand his decision, but a night celebrating nonviolence and the Freedom Riders, and meeting not only some of the 1961 Freedom Riders but also the 40 college students about to leave on the re-creation of the Ride, would have served him and our war-ravaged culture well. He has seen the film and knows about my book, and he certainly must have some awareness of the recent celebrations (he was at an Oprah taping the day I arrived at the Harpo studios to go over the script with Oprah’s producers, and the arriving Freedom Riders were all over Chicago that day), so maybe he will find time in his schedule for us at some point.

Ray Arsenault May 29th, 2011 at 3:28 pm
In response to mzchief @ 72

We have limited room, but just about anyone can register as a special student and take the tour/course. Just contact me well in advance of next year’s June tour. We would love to have you on the bus.

papau May 29th, 2011 at 3:28 pm
In response to Mauimom @ 62

Slowness – indeed it has been slow

I attended the March, 1961 Malcom X speech at Harvard, and there were empty seats near the door, and treatment in the Q&A was more catcall than Harvard intellectual. Malcom X came across – to me – as one very brave, albeit a bit scared despite the two bodyguards, speaker.

It is hard to explain to the grandkids how scary the tension was back then.

The grandkids – I did succeed in getting liberal grandkids – see the problem of today as helping the poor and all who are discriminated against. Indeed there is push back if a point is framed as a need to help people of African-American black ancestry.

Do your students exhibit the same framing? – Bias based on skin color certainly is still with us, but do bias arguments now have to be in more general terms?

Scarecrow May 29th, 2011 at 3:29 pm
In response to Ray Arsenault @ 68

Law schools in the late 1960s and 1970s were dealing with a different world. Back then, the great cases at the Supreme Court were about civil rights, environmental protection, voting rights and so on. Very inspirational for young attorneys. I assume its radically different now in the age of Roberts, Scalia, et al. What would it take, besides replacing these people, to get back to that sense of purpose and pursuit of the public interest?

Mauimom May 29th, 2011 at 3:29 pm
In response to Ray Arsenault @ 78

War wins out over civil rights yet again.

Ray Arsenault May 29th, 2011 at 3:30 pm
In response to Mauimom @ 77

Yes. There is a k-12 Freedom Rider curriculum packet developed by the group Facing History and Ourselves. There is a link to their material on the website PBS.org/freedomriders

Mauimom May 29th, 2011 at 3:31 pm
In response to Ray Arsenault @ 83

Do teachers contact you over this, or is it too new?

I’m certainly going to notify teachers here, although the school year has just ended.

Perhaps they can plan for next year.

Ray Arsenault May 29th, 2011 at 3:34 pm
In response to Scarecrow @ 81

A well-developed sense of soial, political, and legal history would be a good start. I am afraid that most aspiring lawyers (my youngest daughter excluded) know next to nothing about the roots and evolurtion of the civil rights movement. This is such a shame, because they could do so much to advance the social justice agenda.

Mauimom May 29th, 2011 at 3:34 pm

I found it interesting that two of the primary “movers” in the civil rights struggle were women: Irene Morgan and Rosa Parks.

Can you talk a little about each of them — then, and subsequent to the Rides?

PeasantParty May 29th, 2011 at 3:36 pm

For people today trying to change things and attitudes with our government, what steps would you recommend that might be as successful as the Freedom Riders?

Mauimom May 29th, 2011 at 3:36 pm

Although I haven’t read it, I’ve heard about Danielle McGuire’s book, At the Dark End of the Street, which talks about how black women were abused, raped, etc, and suggests that they are the reason civil rights took off: women fighting back.

Can you comment on this?

Ray Arsenault May 29th, 2011 at 3:38 pm
In response to papau @ 80

Yes, I think there is broad sentiment that the old black-white framing is too confining, that the issues related to immigration, Hispanic Americans, and Asian Americans, and the connections between race and class, must be an important part of any social justice initiative. I heard this time and again from the 40 college students on the bus.

Jeff Kaye May 29th, 2011 at 3:38 pm

Mauimom, thanks for hosting, and Ray, thanks so much for your work and your passion.

Ray, I wonder, given the differences between those who sought only a legal remedy and those who realized that direct action, albeit non-violent, was necessary to effect social change, if you have any more generalized thoughts about how change should be effected in this society? Obviously, the legal strategy vs direct action of some sort is something that has come up around antiwar movement, strategies for gay liberation, the anti-torture movement, union struggles, etc.

Since you’ve looked at a very important example of social struggle, I’d be curious if you developed any larger thoughts about it. (This may be in your book, idk, as I just heard of the book today… looks like a superlative work of modern history.)

tuezday May 29th, 2011 at 3:40 pm
In response to Mauimom @ 86

I think women in general, and white women in particular, since we have that advantage, need to understand we are all legally considered minorities and take advantage of that.

Mauimom May 29th, 2011 at 3:41 pm
In response to Ray Arsenault @ 60

Of the students who took the “Freedom Ride re-creation” tour, and for those who experience your other excursions, what is the racial make-up?

I’m interested as you list the issues of interest to them that they are not just “African-American” issues, but include a range of “minority” groups: immigrants, LGBT, etc.

It’s encouraging to think of kids working together and not just limiting themselves to “their” issue.

Ray Arsenault May 29th, 2011 at 3:42 pm
In response to PeasantParty @ 87

A reconsideration of nonviolent direct action would be welcome, in my view. We can learn a lot, not only from the Freedom Rides, but also from what happened this spring in the strrets of Cairo and Bengazi. Ordinary people have more power than they realize–if they are willing to make the same kind of sacrifices that the Freedom Riders did in 1961.

Mauimom May 29th, 2011 at 3:42 pm
In response to Mauimom @ 92

Looks like you sort of answered this in replying @ 87 to papau.

PeasantParty May 29th, 2011 at 3:44 pm
In response to Ray Arsenault @ 93

Thank you. It’s beginning to look like the ONLY recourse. Our representatives in DC have no use for us and refuse to listen.

Mauimom May 29th, 2011 at 3:45 pm
In response to Ray Arsenault @ 93

Do you have any reading on whether students ARE willing to make the sacrifices today?

Do they see themselves as similar to those in the streets in the Middle East, or are they just worried about jobs and student loans?

Ray Arsenault May 29th, 2011 at 3:46 pm
In response to Jeff Kaye @ 90

It seems to me that legal action and nonviolent direct action are complementary strategies rather than mutually exclusive alternatives. In my view, we need both, just as the civil right movement needed both in the 1950s and 1960s. Of course, we need activists who understand the responsibilities and discipline of nonviolence, individuals who can overcome the temptation to express anger and hatred towards political opponents. As trite as it sounds, love, not hate, is the answer.

Mauimom May 29th, 2011 at 3:48 pm
In response to Ray Arsenault @ 93

One thing I learned from your book was about the L-O-N-G history of non-violence [no surprise that folks were devoted to Gandhi in 1947], the commitment to it, and the training of folks to adhere to it in the face of violence.

Do you think there’s any change of a resurgence of this commitment, and of a commitment to civil disobedience? It was amazing to see the number and length of jail terms these folks endured.

Ray Arsenault May 29th, 2011 at 3:50 pm
In response to Mauimom @ 96

Materialist expectations and distrust of political institutions are huge problems, but once again I have renewed hope after my experience with the student freedom riders. They want something more out of life than a secure job and creature comforts. They are almost desperate to become part of something larger than themselves–to experience what the Freedm Riders experienced in 1961 and afterwards.

Mauimom May 29th, 2011 at 3:51 pm
In response to Ray Arsenault @ 99

That’s terrific.

I hope some of them see it within themselves to be leaders!!

Mauimom May 29th, 2011 at 3:52 pm

One element of the Oprah show I found particularly moving was the “reunion” of John Lewis and the white KKK member who had beaten him — but had since apologized.

John Lewis came to my daughter’s high school to speak 10 years ago. It was phenomenal.

I hope there are many John Lewises among your students.

BevW May 29th, 2011 at 3:53 pm

As we come to the end of this Book Salon,

Ray, Thank you for stopping by the Lake and spending the afternoon with us discussing your new book and the Freedom Rides.

Mauimom, Thank you very much for Hosting this great Book Salon discussion.

Everyone, if you would like more information:

Ray’s website and book.

Thanks all,
Have a great Holiday weekend.

mzchief May 29th, 2011 at 3:55 pm

Wow and thank you for that info!

Regarding Ray Arsenault @ 76, I noticed that Tenzin Gyatso made peace pilgrimage to Memphis (Sept. 23, 2009) and much more. Right now there is serious demand to free the Indian government of corruption and for there to be greater justice and equality for all. This demand, although there is the attempt by corporate media and the Chinese government to hide it from view, is serious among the Chinese people and other affected groups.

Great salon and thank you everyone!

Ray Arsenault May 29th, 2011 at 3:55 pm
In response to tuezday @ 91

Women have such a large role to play in all of this. In the wake of the feminist revolution of recent decades, women are generally more primed for the kind of bold action akin to the Freedom Rides than are men. I think there are many Diane Nash-like figures out there, women who are willing to challenge the myths of militarism, violence, and male privilege–directly and honestly without equivocation.

Mauimom May 29th, 2011 at 3:55 pm

Thank you, Bev, for making all the arrangements for this.

And than you, Ray, for joining us. I know your schedule is hectic, and we really appreciate your taking these two hours to be with us.

I hope everyone will both read the book and view the PBS program.

I think you’ll find both inspirational, and when you think about whining about how tough we’ve got it these days re social change, remind yourself of the Freedom Riders.

Ray Arsenault May 29th, 2011 at 3:56 pm
In response to BevW @ 102

Thank you all for your questions and comment. Peace and freedom to you all.

PeasantParty May 29th, 2011 at 3:58 pm

Thank you! Peace and Freedom to you as well!

Ray Arsenault May 29th, 2011 at 3:58 pm
In response to Mauimom @ 101

Reconciliation is what it is all about. John Lewis is a man of uncommon decency and moral courage. I am proud that he is my friend.

tuezday May 29th, 2011 at 4:05 pm
In response to Ray Arsenault @ 104

Exactly, women need to learn we are in charge. Even in the most regressive environs, it’s only women holding themselves back.

On edit: hell, who would have thought a uterus had so much political power.

Mauimom May 29th, 2011 at 5:20 pm
In response to papau @ 80

paupau, it appears we are of the same generation.

We’ll have to “talk” sometime.

Thanks for your contributions today. They were great.

papau May 29th, 2011 at 9:11 pm
In response to Mauimom @ 110

I look forward to discussing anything :-)

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