Q&A with Southern Historian Raymond Arsenault
RA: First of all, I had no idea when I started that there were 436 Freedom Riders. I knew there had been multiple Freedom Rides, but I had no idea the scale of the movement—that there were more than 60 Freedom Rides and that it became a national movement that involved a really diverse, eclectic group of people.
I think we had the notion that these were just mostly white college students from the North going south to stir things up, and it was a much deeper phenomenon. Half the Freedom Riders were black, half were from the South, a quarter were women, some were very religious, but many were secular. There were a number of Jews involved. There were even international Freedom Riders who got involved.
I think the level of discipline [surprised me]—there was not a single break in the nonviolent discipline of not striking back. The interracial and the interregional and the intergenerational quality of it in some ways—although most of the Freedom Riders were young—there were a number of older Freedom Riders who were in effect. [They were] the student radicals of the 1930s who had been involved in the labor movement and other early, direct-action campaigns and sit-ins. So a kind of coming together of the student radicals of the '30s, the student radicals of the '60s and the coming back of the Great Depression struggles that also sort of surprised me, as well.
SM: The comment you made about people not being violent amazes me—no one struck back?
RA: It is because the original 13 Freedom Riders were carefully trained. They had workshops in Washington before they got on the buses, but as the summer progressed and they had to just keep trying to fill the jails in Mississippi, they had to take some chances with that. Everybody got some training but not nearly the amount that the original Riders had. So they had to take a chance on people that they would not embarrass the movement because the whole mystique of the Riders was that they were not like the [Ku Klux] Klansmen who were attacking them.
[The men] wore coats and ties, and the women wore high heels and dresses—they were trying to set up a lack of moral equivalency between them and the white thugs who were trying to kill them. So if they had started to strike back, of course whatever chance they had to become an aspiring sort of messenger to American society would have been lost.
Raymond shares what traits the Freedom Riders share