Raymond Arsenault was just 19 years old when he started researching the 1961 Freedom Rides. He became so interested in the topic, he dedicated 10 years of his life to telling the stories of the Riders—brave men and women who fought for equality. Arsenault’s book, Freedom Riders: 1961 and the Struggle for Racial Justice, is tied to the much-anticipated PBS/American Experience documentary “Freedom Riders,” which premiers on May 16th.
In honor of the Freedom Rides 50th anniversary, American Experience has invited 40 college students to join original Freedom Riders in retracing the 1961 Rides from Washington, DC to New Orleans, LA. (Itinerary, Rider bios, videos and more are available here.) Arsenault is along for the ride, and has agreed to provide regular dispatches from the bus. You can also follow on Twitter, #PBSbus.
Day 1-May 8: Washington to Lynchburg,VA
Glorious first day. Student riders are a marvel–bright and engaged. Began with group photo in front of old Greyhound station in DC, where the 1961 Freedom Ride originated. On to Fredericksburg and a warm welcome at the University of Mary Washington, where James Farmer spent his last 14 years. One of the student riders, Charles Lee is a UMW student. Second stop at Virginia Union in Richmond, where the 1961 Riders spent their first night. Greeted by VU Freedom Rider Reginald Green, charming man who as a young man sang doo-wop with his good friend Marvin Gaye. Third stop in Petersburg, where former Freedom Rider Dion Diamond and Petersburg native led a walking tour of a town suffering from urban blight; drove by Bethany Baptist, where the 1961 Riders held their first mass meeting. On to Farmville and the Robert Russa Moton Museum, formerly Moton High School, the site of the famous 1951 black student strike led by Barbara Johns; our student riders were spellbound by a panel discussion featuring 2 of the students involved in the 1951 strike and later in the struggle against Massive Resistance in Farmville and Prince Edward County, where white supremacist leaders closed the public schools from 1959 to 1964. On to Lynchburg, where the 1961 Freedom Riders spent their third night on the road and where we ended a long but fascinating first day. Heade for Danville, Greensboro, High Point, and Charlotte this morning. Buses are a rollin’!!!
Day 2-May 9: Lynchburg, VA, to Charlotte, NC
The second day of the Student Freedom Ride was full of surprises. We left Lynchburg early in the morning bound for Charlotte. We passed through Danville, once a major site of civil rights protests, where the 1961 Freedom Riders encountered their first opposition and experienced their first small victory–convincing a white station manager to relent and let three white Riders eat a “colored only” lunch counter.
Our first stop was in Greensboro, where we toured the new International Civil Rights museum, located in the famous Woolworth’s–site of the February 1, 1960 sit-in. This was my first visit to the museum, even though I was one of the historical consultants involved in planning the museum. We met the first black mayor of Greensboro, and I did a TV interview with the local PBS affiliate. The kids seemed to be deeply moved by the visit.
On to High Point, the scene of the first high school student sit-in in 1960 and the adopted home of Ben Cox, the original CORE Freedom Rider who organized the sit-in on February 11, 1960. Ben is a dear friend and the first Freedom Rider that I interviewed for my book in 2001. He is a local hero in High Point, where they now have a beautiful sculpted plaque marking the site of the Woolworth’s where the sit-in took place. Ben now lives in Jackson, TN, and is in very poor health, but his spirit and legacy lives on in High Point. Two of his sit-in kids from 1960–including a city councilwoman–met us at the Woolwoerth’s site and delivered a moving tribute to Ben. Very emotional moment for me and the student riders.
On to Charlotte, the site of the first arrest in 1961–the shoe-in by Joe Perkins at the Charlotte station that put him in jail for two nights. We had dinner at the Levine New South museum, then went across the street to the historic and beautiful First United Presbyterian Church, where a capacity crowd showed up to view a long clip from the American Experience film and to listen to a Freedom Riders panel discussion that I moderated. The highlight was a round of freedom songs led by Freedom Riders Rip Patton and Charles Jones, a Charlotte native who accompained William Sloane Coffin on the May 24, 1961 Freedom Ride to Montgomery. Meanwhile, the student riders were downstairs for a 2-hour intensive discussion of race in America, facilitated by William Smith, a Race Amity counselor and one of the first African Americans to play division I football at a predominantly white Southern school (Wake Forest) in the early 1960s. An added highlight for me–a reunion with one of my favorite and most talented students from the early 1980s–Shella Hollowell, whom I hadn’t seen in 25 years. She now lives near Charlotte and is a passionate student of civil rights and Southern history.
The only glitch in the day–the air conditioner on our freedom bus broke down between Greensboro and Charlotte, adding authenticity and a lot of sweat to our journey to the Deep South. This morning we are off to Rock Hill and Augusta, GA, where we will try to keep it cool!
Raymond Arsenault is the John Hope Franklin Professor of Southern History and and Director of Graduate Studies for the Florida Studies Program at the University of South Florida, St. Petersburg. You can watch his discussion with director Stanley Nelson on The Oprah Show here.