May 4, 2011, marks the 50th anniversary of the first Freedom Ride. To commemorate the occasion Fresh Air is replaying interviews with civil rights activist James Farmer Jr., one of the organizers of the 1961 Freedom Ride, and historian Raymond Arsenault. Arsenault's book Freedom Riders: 1961 and the Struggle for Racial Justice has just been rereleased as a companion volume to the film Freedom Riders, premiering May 16, 2011, on PBS.
In 1961, an integrated group of self-proclaimed "Freedom Riders" challenged segregation by riding together on segregated buses through the deep South. They demanded unrestricted access to the buses — as well as to terminal restaurants and waiting rooms — but pledged nonviolence.
Despite being backed by recent federal rulings declaring it unconstitutional to segregate bus riders, the Freedom Riders met with obstinate resistance, even by hatred and violence — as in Birmingham and Montgomery, Ala., where white supremacists attacked bus depots themselves. Local police often refused to intervene, but still the Freedom Riders kept to their pledge of nonviolence — and their efforts transformed the civil rights movement.
Historian Raymond Arsenault documents their journey in Freedom Riders: 1961 and the Struggle for Racial Justice, detailing how the first Freedom Rides developed, from the personal level to the legal maneuvering involved. His narrative touches on elements from the jails of Alabama to the Kennedy White House. The book is now out in paperback.
Arsenault is the John Hope Franklin professor of Southern history at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg and co-director of the university's Florida Studies program. His previous books include Crucible of Liberty: 200 Years of the Bill of Rights, which he edited.