Raymond Arsenault is the John Hope Franklin Professor of Southern History and co-director of the Florida Studies Program at the University of South Florida, St. Petersburg. His book, Freedom Riders: 1961 and the Struggle for Racial Justice, is the full-length story of one of the most celebrated episodes of the civil rights movement. The book has recently been turned into a film which premiered at Sundance yesterday. Below Arsenault talks about the experience.
It was an emotional experience to be at the first public showing of the American Experience documentary based on my book, Freedom Riders. After nearly ten years of research and writing, followed by two years of collaboration with the American Experience staff and Stanley Nelson‘s remarkable crew of filmmakers at Firelight Media, I felt like I had emerged from a long dark tunnel into the light–or more aptly, like someone who had finally stepped off a bus after the world’s longest bus ride. I’m sure that I would have felt this way in just about any venue, but the Sundance scene made the experience especially intense and gratifying. The audience seemed to be spellbound, and I found myself carried away with them, though I couldn’t help wincing every time I appeared on the screen. Seeing yourself on the screen offers a dose of reality, which in my case will send me back to the South Beach diet with a vengeance once my wife and I leave the culinary temptations of Park City. Most important, the moral power and political challenges of the Freedom Rider story were so evident throughout the film, and I found myself turning back to look at Jim Zwerg and Bernard Lafayette, the two Freedom Riders sitting in the row behind me. What they were experiencing as they saw themselves on the screen–so young and determined, and in Jim Zerg’s case bloodied by a savage attack–can only be imagined. We talked a bit about this at dinner after the screening, but I’m sure that it will take them time to process all of this, just as it will for me. The second screening takes place this afternoon, after which there will be a big party for everyone involved with the film. I feel so privileged to be part of this, and I can’t help regarding the film–and my book–as continuations of the Freedom Ride, as important parts of the Riders’ legacy We may not have reached the “beloved community” that the Freedom Riders conceived–and risked their lives to bring about–in 1961. But the film will ultimately force thousands–perhaps even millions–to ponder the meaning of the Freedom Riders’ moral and physical courage. Whatever minor flaws the film may have, this has to be a good thing, with the potential for empowerment and renewed hope. When the film is shown nationally on PBS in January 2011, perhaps a good number of us will find ourselves back on the freedom bus. To quote the freedom song that serves as the film’s anthem, “Hallelujah, we are a travelin’.”.. .