Q&A with Southern Historian Raymond Arsenault
RA: The most obvious thing is just a level of commitment, which suggests both a physical and moral courage. There were times I almost—not really—but I almost felt sorry for the white supremacists, in the sense that they did not know who they were up against. They thought they could use the traditional tactics of scaring these kids, putting them in Parchman Prison, and all that did was reinforce their commitment. The kind of notion of unmerited suffering, which is part of Gandian philosophy, deepened their commitment, and they ended up turning Parchman Prison into a university of nonviolence.
They were literally willing to die—they would not pass the responsibility off to the next generation or anyone else. How you make that decision when you are 18, 19, 20 years old...it just sort of brings a lump to my throat, even now, thinking about it.
I think they were able to think outside the box. There were things [or people] that intervened in their lives—a special teacher, a friend or a family member who maybe was a pacifist or was a serious dissenter in some way, they got close to a group of Quakers—something that took them outside the normal experience. For example, some of the white Freedom Riders had actually gone to overwhelmingly black colleges. That put them outside the mainstream, and they read the black press, and they encountered people beyond the stereotypes that most Americans lived with.
They became involved in something beyond themselves, and I think a lot of their critics misjudged them, thought they were just unruly kids and they needed something exciting and new for their summer vacation. They had no idea who they were dealing with.
It varies from Freedom Rider to Freedom Rider, but they all bear the marks of it, and in some cases, they bear the scars. But I think more commonly, they don't see it as a burden, but they bear the responsibility. It's a kind of stewardship, a sense that they were in a particular place in the historical equation, and it is sort of their destiny to devote their lives to this. Almost all of them went on to do other things that were closely related to different aspects of social justice and racial equality. Not just strictly speaking civil rights but broader human rights.
What Raymond wants students to learn from the Freedom Rides