Q&A with Southern Historian Raymond Arsenault
RA: I'd like for them to have an appreciation for the sense of contingency in history—the notion that certain things are contingent on other things. Sometimes it's just chance, but more often, I think it's being the right person in the right place at the right time, and making the right decisions—acts of courage and conviction and commitment by individuals or groups of people. Even though they may not appear to have power, [they] can have a powerful effect on the course of history. I think the Freedom Rides show that.
All of our lives were affected by that decision that they made in 1961. If they had not gone against the grain and done what they did, I think the whole timing of the movement would have been different. John and Robert Kennedy would have not gone through the educational process the Freedom Riders put them through. There's no way in the world that Kennedy would have promoted a comprehensive Civil Rights Act in 1963 before his assassination. There would have been nothing for Lyndon Johnson to grab onto and to pass through in Congress in 1964. So it changes the whole meaning of what happened in the early '60s. Maybe we would have gotten to the same place, but almost certainly, the timing would have been different, and the meaning would have been different. The fact that they pushed things against the advice of many of the civil rights leaders who thought they just didn't know what they were getting themselves into, and to some degree they did have to sort of make it up as they went along, but they had this deep conviction that they were doing the right thing.
I think so often we just shrug our shoulders and say, "What can we do as individuals? There are these powerful and personal forces that control our lives, and there's nothing we can really do." I think there are many examples in history, but the Freedom Rides is a particularly good example that that's not true.
I think all the so-called "Rights Revolution" that emerges in the 1960s, with the anti-war movement, the women's movement, gay and lesbian struggles and the environmental movement—all these things are connected to the template of the Freedom Rides, which expands the realm of the possible in American democratic politics. It shows that we do have the power to live up to our ideals; that they're not false ideals.
How Raymond defines courage