The reasons for this scholarly neglect are not altogether clear, but in recent years part of the problem has been the deceptive familiarity of the Freedom Rider story. Beginning with Taylor Branch's Parting the Waters: America in the King Years 1954-63, published in 1988, several prominent journalists, including Diane McWhorter and David Halberstam, have written long chapters that cover significant portions of the Freedom Rider experience. Representing popular history at its best, both Branch's book and McWhorter's Carry Me Home: Birmingham, Alabama: The Climactic Battle of the Civil Rights Revolution, published in 2000, attracted wide readership and won the coveted Pulitzer Prize for their authors. Halberstam's 1998 bestseller, The Children, has also been influential, bringing the Nashville movement of the early 1960s back to life for thousands of Americans, including many historians. Written in vivid prose, these three books convey much of the drama and some of the meaning of the Freedom Rides.

Yet, as good as they are, these books do not do full justice to an historical episode that warrants careful and sustained attention from professional scholars. The Freedom Rides deserve a comprehensive and targeted treatment unhampered by the distraction of a broader agenda. Every major episode of the civil rights struggle merits a full study of its own. But none is more deserving than the insistent and innovative movement that seized the attention of the nation in 1961, bringing nonviolent direct action to the forefront of the fight for racial justice. Foreshadowed by Montgomery and the sit-ins, the Freedom Rides initiated a turbulent decade of insurgent citizen politics that transformed the nature of American democracy. Animated by a wide range of grievances, from war and poverty to disfranchisement and social intolerance, a new generation of Americans marched, protested, and sometimes committed acts of civil disobedience in the pursuit of liberty and justice. And many of them did so with the knowledge that the Freedom Riders had come before them.

As the first historical study of this remarkable group of activists, Freedom Riders attempts to reconstruct the text and context of a pivotal moment in American history. At the mythic level, the saga of the Freedom Riders is a fairly simple tale of collective engagement and empowerment, of the pursuit and realization of democratic ideals, and of good triumphing over evil. But a carefully reconstructed history reveals a much more interesting story. Lying just below the surface, encased in memory and long overlooked documents, is the real story of the Freedom Rides, a complicated mesh of commitment and indecision, cooperation and conflict, triumph and disappointment. In an attempt to recapture the meaning and significance of the Freedom Rides without sacrificing the drama of personal experience and historical contingency, I have written a book that is chronological and narrative in form. From the outset my goal has been to produce a "braided narrative" that addresses major analytical questions related to cause and consequence. But I have done so in a way that allows the art of storytelling to dominate the structure of the work.

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.  


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