Dunbar had good reason to be concerned. In a nation where the mystique of States' rights and local control enjoyed considerable popularity, crossing state lines for the purpose of challenging parochial mores was a highly provocative act. The notion that Freedom Riders were outside agitators and provocateurs cast serious doubt on their legitimacy, eliminating most of the moral capital that normally accompanied nonviolent struggle. Freedom Rides, by their very nature, involved physical mobility and a measure of outside involvement, if only in the form of traveling from one place to another. But the discovery—or in some cases, the assumption—that most of the Freedom Riders were Northerners deepened the sense of public anxiety surrounding the Rides. Judging by the national press and contemporary public commentary, the archetypal Freedom Rider was an idealistic but naïve white activist from the North, probably a college student but possibly an older religious or labor leader. In actuality, however, the Freedom Riders were much more diverse than most Americans realized. While many Freedom Riders resembled the description above, many others did not. Black activists born and raised in the South accounted for five of the original thirteen Freedom Riders and approximately one-third of the four hundred-plus Riders who later joined the movement. The Freedom Rider movement was as interregional as it was interracial, but for some reason the indigenous contribution to the Rides did not seem to register in the public consciousness, then or later. Part of the explanation undoubtedly resides in the conventional wisdom that Southern blacks were too beaten down to become involved in their own liberation. Even after the Montgomery bus boycott and the 1960 sit-ins suggested otherwise, this misconception plagued popular and even scholarly explanations of the civil rights struggle, including accounts of the Freedom Rides.
Redressing this misconception is reason enough to write a revisionist history of the Freedom Rides. But there are a number of other issues, both interpretative and factual, that merit attention. Chief among them is the tendency to treat the Freedom Rides as little more than a dramatic prelude to the climactic events of the mid- and late-1960s. In the rush to tell the stories of Birmingham, Freedom Summer, the Civil Rights Acts of 1964 and 1965, the Black Power movement, and the urban riots, assassinations, and political and cultural crises that have come to define a decade of breathless change, the Freedom Rides have often gotten lost. Occupying the mid-point between the 1954 Brown decision and the 1968 assassination of Martin Luther King, the events of 1961 would seem to be a likely choice as the pivot of a pivotal era in civil rights history. But that is not the way the Rides are generally depicted in civil rights historiography. While virtually every historical survey of the civil rights movement includes a brief section on the Freedom Rides, they have not attracted the attention that they deserve. The first scholarly monograph on the subject was published in 2003, and amazingly the present volume represents the first attempt by a professional historian to write a book-length account of the Freedom Rides.
Reprinted from FREEDOM RIDERS: 1961 and the Struggle for Racial Justice by Raymond Arsenault with the permission of Oxford University Press. Copyright © 2006, 2011 by Raymond Arsenault.