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Freedom Riders: 1961 and the Struggle for Racial Justice (Pivotal Moments in American History) Hardcover – January 15, 2006
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"A passionate, dazzlingly well written narrative account of the Freedom Rides, the dramatic direct actions that seemed to draw every great man (and woman) in the United States into their orbit."--Todd Moye, The Journal of Southern History
"Surely the definitive study on the topic.... Arsenault skillfully brings to life these important historical figures, revealing their courage, fear, motivations, and conflicts--both internal and external."--J.E. Branscombe, Southern Historian
"A meticulous, all-encompassing study of the 1961 Freedom Riders and their subsequent efforts. It is a must-read for all students of America's freedom movement."--Lee E. Williams II, The Alabama Review
"Drawing on personal papers, F.B.I. files, and interviews with more than 200 participants in the rides, Arsenault brings vividly to life a defining moment in modern American history.... Rescues from obscurity the men and women who, at great personal risk, rode public buses into the South in order to challenge segregation in interstate travel.... Relates the story of the first Freedom Ride and the more than 60 that followed in dramatic, often moving detail."--Eric Foner, The New York Times Book Review
"Authoritative, compelling history.... This is a story that only benefits from Mr. Arsenault's deliberately slowed-down narration. Moment by moment, he recreates the sense of crisis, and the terrifying threat of violence that haunted the first Freedom Riders, and their waves of successors, every mile of the way through the Deep South. He skillfully puts into order a bewildering series of events and leads the reader, painstakingly, through the political complexities of the time. Perhaps his greatest achievement is to show, through a wealth of detail, just how contested every inch of terrain was, and how uncertain the outcome, as the Freedom Riders pressed forward, hundreds of them filling Southern jails."--William Grimes, The New York Times
"For those interested in understanding 20th-century America, this is an essential book.... In his dramatic and exhaustive account of the Freedom Riders, Arsenault makes a persuasive case that the idealism, faith, ingenuity and incredible courage of a relatively small group of Americans--both white and black--lit a fuse in 1961 that drew a reluctant federal government into the struggle--and also enlarged, energized and solidified (more or less) the hitherto fragmented civil rights movement.... Arsenault tells the story in wonderfully rich detail. He explains how young people, knowing the brutality and danger that others had faced, nevertheless came to replace them--in wave after wave--to ride dangerous roads, to face lawless lawmen, to withstand the fury of racist mobs, to endure the squalor and danger of Southern jails--even the dreaded Parchman Farm in Mississippi."--Roger Wilkins, Washington Post Book World
"Compelling.... A complex, vivid and sympathetic history of a civil-rights milestone."--David Cohen, Philadelphia Inquirer
"Arsenault has written what will surely become the definitive account of these nonviolent protests.... Arsenault's fine narrative shows how the Freedom Rides were important journeys on the long road to racial justice."--Richmond Times-Dispatch
"This is a thrilling book. It brings to life a crucial episode in the movement that ended racial brutality in the American south, giving us both the bloody drama of the Freedom Rides and the legal and political maneuvering behind the scenes."--Anthony Lewis
"The Freedom Rides brought onto the national stage the civil rights struggle and those who would play leading roles in it.... Arsenault chronicles the Freedom Rides with a mosaic of what may appear daunting detail. But delving into Arsenault's account, it becomes clear that his record of strategy sessions, church vigils, bloody assaults, mass arrests, political maneuverings and personal anguish captures the mood and the turmoil, the excitement and the confusion of the movement and the time."--Michael Kenney, The Boston Globe
"Arsenault deftly weaves an intricate narrative of the 1961 Freedom Rides.... Narrating the origins, the violent and turbulent rides themselves, the litigation, and the legacy, this work is similar, in its skillful crafting, to James M. McPherson's Battle Cry of Freedom on the Civil War."--Library Journal
"Freedom Riders is a gripping narrative of one of the most important and underappreciated chapters in the Civil Rights movement. Raymond Arsenault shows how, in the summer of 1961, some four hundred and fifty courageous men and women took the struggle for racial justice in this country to a new level. Using hundreds of interviews and relentless research, Arsenault shows what the Freedom Riders faced on those buses, in those jailhouses, and in the midst of frenzied mobs. Freedom Riders reminds us of the moral power of direct action in the face of hostility and, sometimes worse, complacency."--Vernon E. Jordan, Jr.
"The Freedom Rides have long held an honored place in the pantheon of civil rights struggles. With this meticulous and moving book, Raymond Arsenault reminds us why. Freedom Riders is a classic American tale of courage, brutality, and the unquenchable desire for justice."--Kevin Boyle, author of Arc of Justice: A Saga of Race, Civil Rights, and Murder in the Jazz Age, winner of the 2004 National Book Award
"An exhaustively researched, gracefully written, dramatic and moving story of hundreds of dedicated men and women, black and white, who took their commitment to human rights seriously in the face of hateful, violent, and determined opposition. Raymond Arsenault has given us the gift of his humane sensitivity and his immense knowledge of the times and the lives of those whose ideals shaped late 20th century American society. On the canvas of 1960s America, he paints an unforgettable picture of young people and their elders who risked their lives for justice and offered an example to the world of humanitarian principles in action. Anyone seeking to understand the modern civil rights movement must read this book. They will be forever changed by the experience." --James Oliver Horton, Benjamin Banneker Professor of American Studies and History, George Washington University, and author of The Landmarks of African American History and co-author of Slavery and the Making of America
"Raymond Arsenault's Freedom Riders is a major addition to the already vast literature on the American civil rights movement. More than simply a well-researched study of the 1961 freedom rides, the book is an insightful, thorough, and engaging narrative of an entire era of direct action protests to end segregation in interstate transportation. Filled with vivid portraits of courageous civil rights activists (as well as government officials and notable segregationists), Freedom Riders sheds new light on a nonviolent campaign that profoundly affected southern race relations and the nation as a whole during the decades after World War II." --Clayborne Carson, Director, Martin Luther King, Jr., Research and Education Institute, editor of The Autobiography of Martin Luther King, Jr. and author of In Struggle: SNCC and the Black Awakening of the 1960s
"They were the shock troops of the civil rights movement--and more. Freedom Riders tells the stories of the men and women whose bold incursions into the Jim Crow South disrupted the static culture of the Cold War fifties and did much to set the pace and course of what followed in the 1960s. At last we have a history that captures the drama and power of this moment, cast in the fullness of the struggle for racial justice in America. It is a brilliant achievement." --Patricia A. Sullivan, Associate Professor of History, University of South Carolina, and author of Days of Hope: Race and Democracy in the New Deal Era
"Freedom Riders is a beautifully written contribution to literature. Arsenault portrays his characters so vividly that they almost step from the page, and his rich narrative comes alive with a passion and a momentum that make it difficult to put down. Freedom Riders is also a magnificent work of history, sensitively interpreted, filled with brilliant insights, and rooted in an exceptional depth of research in archival, published, and oral sources. This book propels Raymond Arsenault into the front rank of Southern writers of fact and fiction." --Charles Joyner, Burroughs Distinguished Professor of History, Coastal Carolina University, and author of Down by the Riverside and Shared Traditions
"Raymond Arsenault's compelling narrative pays homage to the hundreds of individuals, black and white, whose courage and conviction transformed the black freedom struggle at a critical moment in this nation's history. Not just the definitive history of the freedom rides, which it is, Freedom Riders demands a place on that short shelf of books that are required reading for students of the civil rights movement."--John Dittmer, Professor of History Emeritus at DePauw University, and author of the Bancroft Prize-winning Local People: The Struggle for Civil Rights in Mississippi
About the Author
Raymond Arsenault is the John Hope Franklin Professor of Southern History and co-director of the Florida Studies Program at the University of South Florida, St. Petersburg. A graduate of Princeton and Brandeis, he is the author of two prize-winning books and numerous articles on race, civil rights, and regional culture.
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When the Freedom Riders decided to challenge their right to desegregated interstate bus travel, a right upheld by the Supreme Court, they took a personal and dangerous stand against the vehemently racist Deep South. To portray the humanity of the Freedom Rides, Arsenault says he will let the players speak for themselves throughout his monograph (9). In this, Arsenault is very successful. Using a vast archive of manuscripts that includes personal papers and scrapbooks, as well as court decisions, newspapers, government publications, and interviews, Arsenault imbues Freedom Riders with a poignancy that cannot come from chronological narration and analysis alone. For example, to depict the chaos of the Montgomery, Alabama riot of May 20th, Arsenault chooses to use the words of John Lewis himself, whose emotional and personal account of the event lends to the story an element of dramatic immediacy that academic language could never do justice to (212). To assume that Arsenault’s intent is to strictly isolate the Freedom Rides from the larger picture would be incorrect.
The Civil Rights movement as a whole was dominated by different groups and people, all of whom engaged in an interplay of alliance, faction, and inspiration. In one of the most extensive studies of Martin Luther King and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) by David Garrow, Bearing the Cross, little attention is paid to the Fellowship of Reconciliation (FOR) and their involvement with King and the Montgomery Improvement Association (MIA). In Garrow’s interpretation, the relationship between King and FOR was based on FOR’s curiosity about King and the Montgomery boycott. When members of FOR found out King was interested in Gandhi and passive resistance, they helped provide resources to teach him more about it. ((David J. Garrow, Bearing the Cross: Martin Luther King Jr., and the Southern Leadership Conference (New York: Perennial Classics, 2004): 67-70.)) Arsenault contributes a new element to the dynamic relationship by instead insisting that the link between the two was stronger than mere curiosity and sideline influence. According to Arsenault, King and the MIA was dependant on FOR’s leadership, and it was the FOR movement that instilled the ideas of Gandhian nonviolence into King, which he would utilize passionately (70). To Garrow, it was a matter of refinement of an already adopted idea. To Arsenault, it was because of FOR that the MIA adopted the practice. Arsenault does similarly when he describes the legacy of the Freedom Rides. Due to what he sees as an historical lack of importance attributed to the Freedom Rides, it is essential for Arsenault's to define what the importance of the Freedom Riders was and remains. This required him to look outside of the Freedom Rides themselves and account for how the Freedom Rides inspired future civil rights developments. Arsenault states that the Freedom Riders nationalized their movement and would later move on to direct, participate, and inspire future acts of civil defiance such as the March on Washington, the Freedom Summer, and various voting registration drives (507). Arsenault is perhaps a bit guilty of overstating the importance of the movement itself. While the Freedom Rides no doubt inspired many, and many future Civil Rights activists would look back to the bravery of the riders for guidance, the Freedom Riders were one of several groups functioning. King and the NAACP had voting registration projects distinct from anything the Freedom Riders did, for instance. If anything, the experience gained by all of the Freedom Riders as they challenged racism head on would equip them to lead and teach others, and Arsenault is right to point this out. By participating in the Freedom Rides, many young students developed a taste for action. After surviving the violence of the KKK in Alabama and Mississippi, there was little left for them to fear of the white South, though they never underestimated the violence possible. This bravery would disseminate throughout the movement and inspire, and tested practices of nonviolence and passive resistance would be adopted by other groups. Arsenault was correct in this conclusion.
The Freedom Rides was part of a whole rather than a pinnacle. Another one of the major successes of the book is how Arsenault fits the Freedom Riders into the political culture of the time, and also within what is happening throughout the world. Again, Arsenault removes the rides from isolation, and this time to surround them in a national and world context. In terms of the federal government, Arsenault adequately shows that the Freedom Riders exposed the tensions between federal and state governments, and also forced the national government to act in favor of them if only to protect the image of the country from bad media coverage. The federal government, as Arsenault depicts, was relatively inadequate to the task of forcing state and local governments to comply with their terms. The weaknesses of the Kennedy Administration, Hoover and the FBI, and the Supreme Court is at center stage with the Freedom Riders. Yet Arsenault rightfully too inserts further complexity in matters of election; President John F. Kennedy could not risk losing support and thus had to act in a manner that would anger his supporters the least (221-222, 244-246). Attorney General Robert Kennedy worried over whether to send federal marshals into Montgomery to quell the hostile situation there because he did not want the moral authority of the United States to be mitigated by much publicized white violence (221). The Freedom Riders, too, were very aware of what was happening in the world. African Americans throughout the United States simultaneously applauded South African apartheid protestors and lamented their similar struggles, and felt that if Africans could bring an end to colonialism and gain independence, so too could they gain their freedom (201, 431). The Freedom Rides were a complex series of rides with a rotating cast of participants who came and went over the course. Different organizations and student groups started rides of their own such as the Nashville group who decided to continue after the first Freedom Ride lest white violence become the norm against them. As a result, tracing the pattern of rides and people can get a bit difficult to follow. Thankfully, Arsenault provides maps that trace the routes of different groups, and maps that section parts of major cities off to give a geographical sense of the project. However, his text would have been easier to follow had he found a way to identify the different Freedom Ride groups in a distinct and consistent manner. Referring to every different ride as just Freedom Ride or the riders as only Freedom Riders makes for a confusing chronology. It would benefit readers more had Arsenault named each group in a manner that would recognize them more specifically, such as Nashville Freedom Riders or Mississippi Freedom Rides like he does on his map routes. The consistency alone would help connect the text to the maps and make them work in better support of each other. This does not in any way diminish the work Arsenault has produced. He states that he has set out to describe the Freedom Rides and place them back on the list of momentous Civil Rights events, and he does. The Freedom Rides are no longer just a marginal event overshadowed by King or NAACP, but an individual movement that too would motivate others while drawing the overall movement into the national eye.
Thus, before the age of NED or Freedom House, those who challenged entrenched tyranny in America faced real risk to life and limb, with only scattered support from the media and none from either the State Department or NGO clones. Such were the Freedom Riders, who were armed with naught but the courage of their ideals, as they embarked cross-country for the lion's den to stick their heads in his jaws.
That they ultimately prevailed is a commendation of the "American Way"; but they did so only after considerable risk, repression, and one-sided bloodshed. The "flowering of democracy" in the American South was fertilized not by the blood of tyrants but those seeking freedom. Would that such cheap imitators in Serbia, Ukraine or Lebanon - basking in Western funding and media cheerleading - have had to endure a tenth of what these brave people had to risk in the US itself.