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