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 5–May 12: Anniston, AL, to Nashville, TN
Our fifth day on the road started with the dedication of two murals in Anniston, at the old Greyhound and Trailways stations. I worked with the local committee on the text, and I was pleased with the results. In the past, there was nothing to signify that anything historic had happened at these sites. The turnout of both blacks and whites was gratifying and perhaps a sign that Anniston has begun the healing process of confonting its dark past. The students seemed intrigued by the whole scene, including the media blitz. We then boarded the bus and traveled six miles to the site of the bus burning; we talked with the only local resident who was there in 1961 and with the designer of a proposed Freedom Rider park that will be built on the site, which now boasts only a small historic marker. I have mixed feelings about the park, but perhaps the plan will be refined to a less Disneyesque form. It was quite a scene at the site, but we eventually pulled ourselves away for the long drive to Nashville.
Our first stop in Nashville was the civil rights room of the public library, the holder of one of the nation’s great civil rights collections. Rip Patton gave a moving account of his life as a Nashville student activist. We then traveled across town to the John Seigenthaler First Amendment Center at Vanderbilt University, where John Seigenthaler talked with the students for a spellbinding hour. He focused on his experiences with the Kennedy brothers and his sense of the evolution of their civil rights consciousness. As always, he was captivating and gracious, and full of truth-telling wit. We gave the students the night off to experience the music scene in Nashville, while I and the Freedom Riders participated in a Q and A session following a screening of the PBS film. The theater was packed, and the response was very enthusiastic. It was great to see this in Nashville, a hallowed site essential to the Freedom Rider saga and the wider freedom struggle. On to Fisk this morning before journeying south to Birmingham and “sweet home Alabama.”
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.