Q&A with Southern Historian Raymond Arsenault
Now, this professor of southern history shares his expertise of the Freedom Rides, a pivotal event of America's civil rights movement. Find out what sparked his interest in this topic, what the Freedom Riders have in common and how he defines courage.
Raymond Arsenault: It was largely a personal reason. I had been intrigued with the story since I was a teenager. I was a transplanted New Englander growing up in the Deep South, and so I had to confront the racial issues and questions about civil rights and regional identity from a pretty early age. When I was 19, I was an undergraduate at Princeton [University], and I became a research assistant for a young historian named Sheldon Hackney who was from Birmingham, and his wife was from Montgomery, Alabama. They both were close to Rosa Parks and had been involved in the civil rights movement. In fact, his wife's father had been Rosa Parks' attorney during the Montgomery bus boycott. So this sort of put me into a world of black and white activists that I scarcely knew existed.
I started doing work for Sheldon and immediately sort of confronted the Freedom Rides story. [I] went on and did other things, but I always had in the back of my mind that I wanted to write something on it at some point. Then in the late '90s, two of my former professors approached me. ... They said, "Well, have you got a pivotal moment for us?" I said, "Well, yes, yes I do."
I always thought it was sort of amazing that no one had ever written a book on the Freedom Riders...in fact, not even a scholarly article. There were sections of books that dealt with it—a paragraph here, a few pages there—but no one had ever done the archival research or actually talked to the Freedom Riders at any length.
I tracked them down, went to their reunions, got to know them and became a sort of honorary Freedom Rider, I suppose. The deeper I got into it, the more I realized that it was definitely a pivotal moment, not only in the civil rights struggle, but in the history of American democracy. It was one of the main reasons why the spirit of the 1960s was so different than the 1950s, and the emergence of grassroots politics and ordinary people taking it upon themselves to push the edge of the envelope when it came to social change and fighting for social justice and racial equality.
It was much larger, a much more complex story than I ever could have imagined; I never expected it to take me nearly 10 years, and it was a monster of a task, but it was a labor of love because I knew I was on to something of major importance that could potentially be an extraordinarily empowering story if it could ever get out to the mass of Americans, or to at least the lay-educated public.
What surprised Raymond while researching the Rides
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
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
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
RA: I'm more impressed with moral courage than physical courage. Physical courage is something we all can be mindful of, but I think it's the moral courage to speak out when others are not and to take the unpopular position when you know it may have very negative consequences for you.
Some of the Freedom Riders never finished their college degrees; their lives were deflected—they never really got back on track. They made real sacrifices. I know when I [researched the Freedom Rides] at the age of 19, it really redirected my life. ... I had been that person who lingered on the edge of the crowd and hoped for the best.
[The Freedom Rides] made me into an activist. I've been an activist for much of my life and [have] been very much involved in civil rights and civil liberties issues, and I'd like to think, more often than not, that I've stepped up. I'm sure I haven't always stepped up when I should have, but I've tried to follow the precepts of the people that I've studied.
Historians have to have a certain level of detachment, but you really can't be fully objective when you're dealing with people like this. We're flesh-and-blood human beings, and we're not machines. I'd be teasing myself if I didn't make my commitment and my career to doing books on the Freedom Riders.
I have tried to be as active as I can be, and I am so grateful that I was fortunate enough to be exposed to this at such a young age that I've tried to integrate that into everything I do as a professor and as an intellectual. I've chosen my subjects carefully and not in a proselytizing sense, but in a sense, it's what drives my passion.
My daughters keep saying, "Dad, are you ever going to get on the bus or off the bus?" [I say,] "No, I'm riding this bus to the end of the line."
More from the Show
Read an excerpt from Raymond's book
Lessons from the Freedom Rides
Freedom Riders: Then and now