The Freedom Riders of 1961 stepped aboard buses and started a journey into exploring civil rights, as they challenged the racist interstate travel laws of Southern states.
Raymond Arsenault – John Hope Franklin Professor of Southern History and program advisor of the Florida Studies Program at USF’s St. Petersburg campus – has continued that journey.
Arsenault’s work and study of the Freedom Riders resulted in a book in 2006, a PBS documentary released in May, a student re-enactment of the 1961 ride and an appearance on the Oprah Winfrey Show during its last month on air.
Arsenault spoke with The Oracle after returning from Mississippi, where the Freedom Riders reunited for the 50th anniversary of the momentous movement.
The Oracle: How did you become interested in the Freedom Riders?
Raymond Arsenault: I’ve written about a lot of different topics, but in the late 1990s, two of my former professors were creating a new book series called “Pivotal Moments in American History” and they were looking for historians who could write a narrative that was both truth telling and dramatic. I didn’t hesitate for a moment.
Civil rights in general is something I’ve been deeply interested in since I was a teenager, in part because I was a New Englander growing up in the South.
I had to deal with it personally, and as an undergraduate at Princeton University in the middle of the civil rights years, I became a research assistant to a professor who was a native of Birmingham and was a good friend of Rosa Parks and other people who were involved with the civil rights movement.
I got thrown into this world of black and white activists at the age of 19 – not only studying the civil rights movement, but also getting involved myself and getting to know this part of America that many white Americans had only a very vague sense of.
O: What about their stories inspired you to study them over the course of many years?
RA: The Freedom Rides was an episode I felt had largely been ignored by historians. There wasn’t a single book written about it. I feel it was a pivotal moment not only in the history of the civil rights movement, but also in the history of American democracy and the new citizen grassroots politics – where ordinary citizens took it upon themselves to impact the pace of change.
When I started the book in 1998, I didn’t fully realize what I was getting myself into. I spent the next eight years of my life engrossed in it, tracking down Freedom Riders (and) trying to understand what these young kids did back in 1961 to force the nation to re-examine its failure to live up to its promise of liberty and justice for all.
O: You were involved in organizing the 2011 Student Freedom ride, during which college students retraced the routes of the 1961 rides with some of the original riders. What did you hope for students to take away from this ride?
RA: We hoped the students would learn something, but I think we learned something. It gave us hope for the future. It was an exhilarating experience for the students to have so much contact with the original freedom riders and be part of commemorating the 50th anniversary. There were more than 1,000 applications to pick the 40 students from. These young people were already committed to social justice.
In the same way the Freedom Rides solidified the bonds between the Freedom Riders, I saw the same thing happening on the bus as we traveled from Washington to New Orleans. The students would organize their own teach-ins and have hours of discussion until midnight on social issues that mattered to them, such as immigrants’ rights or problems of gender discrimination.
I feel much better about our prospects for finding peace and justice after spending 10 days with these kids – they’re still on the bus.
O: What were the goals of the original Freedom Riders?
RA: The Freedom Riders wanted to win the hearts and minds of Americans, but they were also trying to work the leverage of political change with the Kennedy administration, which had been so disappointing in its first few weeks with its emphasis on the Cold War. There seemed to be no interest in addressing the domestic problems of racial inequality and injustice.
There was a lot of talk of spreading freedom in Asia and Africa, but there was almost no talk of what needed to be done in Mississippi and Alabama and Florida and Georgia. They would sit in the bus terminals, daring the Ku Klux Klan to stop them, daring the local police to arrest them, in hopes that the Kennedy administration would do the right thing.
They did it at a time when it was very embarrassing for the United States, when the last thing they wanted were these headlines that made the American democracy look like a rather hollow reality at best.
O: What impressed you about how they carried out their rides?
RA: They adopted a nonviolent but confrontational approach that would not let the Kennedys or any Americans go back to ‘business as usual’ until the issue was addressed. It became increasingly difficult to demonize the Freedom Riders – they were so well behaved and so polite. American politics and American citizenship has never been the same since them. The Freedom Riders really acted as a template for all the movements that come afterwards for people to stand up and speak out.
O: What messages can be applied from the 1961 movement in today’s society?
RA: They carry a message for all those who shrug their shoulders or feel overwhelmed by socioeconomic issues and think there is nothing they can do. Their message is much broader than that. (The story of the Freedom Rides) is a very empowering story of people taking the struggle for civil rights, and human rights and human dignity out of the courtroom and into the streets.
Even though these were young kids – 18 or 19 years old, the youngest 13 – they took it upon themselves to literally put their bodies on the line. They weren’t willing to push the responsibility off to the next generation. They were demanding freedom now, not freedom later.