MAXWELL: ‘Freedom Riders’ gives voice to a movement
2/16/2006 – Printed in the FLORIDIAN section of the St Petersburg Times Newspaper

It lasted for only six months.
But people who were directly involved in the civil rights movement know that those six months represent some of the most significant in all of American history.
In 1961, 450 people, black and white, boarded Greyhound and Trailways buses in the nation’s capital and traveled to the Old Confederacy to test the viability of a recently passed federal ruling that declared segregation in public transportation unconstitutional.
They were the “Freedom Riders.”
Theirs is a story of courage that shamed the United States, especially the White House of then-President John F. Kennedy, into listening to the voices of protest that were coalescing against Jim Crow laws – laws that marginalized an entire race.
In many bus stations, such as those in Birmingham and Montgomery, Ala., the riders faced angry mobs of white supremacists. Riders were punched, kicked and clubbed, and one bus was disabled and firebombed.
This period is considered one of the most dangerous of the entire civil rights movement because many white police officers were Ku Klux Klansmen who stood shoulder to shoulder with the attackers without intervening on behalf of the black victims.
University of South Florida historian Raymond Arsenault has meticulously chronicled the terror, the suffering and the bravery of this period in Freedom Riders: 1961 and the Struggle for Racial Justice. In 690 pages of narrative, photographs, rosters and bus schedules, Arsenault brings to life the personalities and events of this pivotal moment in the civil rights movement.
Freedom Riders is a landmark, because unlike other works on the period that treat it as a mere chapter in the larger movement, the book portrays the rides as a movement unto itself. By doing so, Arsenault skillfully fleshes out the details that heretofore have been ignored or airbrushed into the background.
Key players, such as Martin Luther King Jr., John and Robert Kennedy, James Farmer, Diane Nash, John Lewis and Fred Shuttlesworth, are shown in all of their stubbornness, myopia, backbiting and, of course, moments of insight.
By stripping away the awe that surrounds famous historical figures, Arsenault dispels the myth that all civil rights leaders were of one accord. The truth is that King and other Southern Christian Leadership Conference officials and members of the NAACP, for example, opposed the direct confrontation style of the Freedom Riders.
Anyone who has apotheosized the Kennedy brothers will walk away from Freedom Riders with second thoughts about the virtues of Camelot. Consider Arsenault’s description of the Kennedy administration’s ambivalence about the riders in light of pressure from Southern politicians:
“Even though it had great difficulty resolving the Freedom Rider crisis, the Kennedy administration demonstrated its ability to put a self-serving spin on the Rides as early as May 1961, during the immediate aftermath of the Anniston and Birmingham riots.”
With the scholarship of the historian and the clarity of the journalist, Arsenault reveals the raw fear that governed the lives of average blacks in the Deep South, and he shows white hatred for the evil that it was. Arsenault quotes John Lewis’ dramatic portrayal of an attack at the Montgomery bus terminal:
“Out of nowhere, from every direction, came people. White people. Men, women, and children. Dozens of them. Hundreds of them. Out of alleys, out of side streets, around corners of office buildings, they emerged from everywhere, from all directions, all at once, as if they’d been let out of a gate . . . They carried every makeshift weapon imaginable. Baseball bats, wooden boards, bricks, chains, tire irons, pipes, even garden tools – hoes and rakes. One group had women in front, their faces twisted in anger, screaming, ‘Git them n——, GIT them n——!’ ”
This and other attacks were caught on television cameras, and the images were fed into homes nationwide. Decent people were ashamed and disgusted. Arsenault shows that the riders had done their job: They had helped in paving the way for the broader movement that was to come.
Freedom Riders is a tour de force, and it will become must reading for anyone seriously interested in the history of the civil rights movement. With skill, passion and respect for his subject, Arsenault re-creates the turbulent six months in 1961 that changed America forever.
“Freedom Riders: 1961 and the Struggle for Racial Justice,” by Raymond Arsenault, Oxford University Press, $32.50, 690 pages.
Reviewer Bill Maxwell is an associate professor of journalism at Stillman College in Tuscaloosa, Ala.
Freedom Riders: 1961 and the Struggle for Racial Justice, by Raymond Arsenault
Ray Arsenault will hold a signing at 7 p.m. Friday at Inkwood Books, 216 S Armenia Ave., Tampa; and another at 2 p.m. Saturday at Haslam’s Bookstore, 2025 Central Ave., St. Petersburg