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 3–May 10: Charlotte, NC, to Augusta, GA
We started the day with a breakfast meeting at a black Pentecostal church in West Charlotte. The students had the chance to sit with local civil rights activists such as former Freedom Rider Charles Jones, who gave another inspirational “blessing” that included rousing freedom songs. The next stop, a few blocks away, was West Charlotte High School, an important site in the school desegregation saga in Charlotte and Mecklenburg County. Since our freedom bus was temporarily out of commission (the AC was being fixed), we drove up in a red, doubled-decker, London-style “party bus.” Some of the kids rushed out to greet us, perplexing the school security guards, who weren’t expecting a freedom ride on their doorstep. West Charlotte High, once a model of racial integration and educational improvement, has fallen on hard times, the victim of resegregation and neglect since the mid-1990s.
On to Rock Hill, SC, the birthplace of “jail-no bail” in February 1961 and the home of the courageous Friendship Nine, arrested in 1961. Five of the nine joined us for an emotional lunch at a recently refurbished McCrory’s, site of the famous 1961 sit-in. Andrea Barnett, a black special-ed teacher from Charlotte, who recently completed a 3,000 mile Freedom Ride (designed to instill self-confidence in her students) on her motorcycle, accompanied by her white boyfriend, from DC to New Orleans and back to Charlotte, was on hand to sing a beautiful and moving folk song (that she wrote) dedicated to the Freedom Riders. Also on hand was a Catholic priest, Father Boone, who has been in Rock Hill for 52 years, much of the time a lone local white voice preaching racial tolerance and justice. It was quite a scene. As we drove off across South Carolina to Augusta, GA, there were more than a few tear-stained faces on the (mercifully) retooled, air-cooled freedom bus. On to Atlanta and Anniston this morning.
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.