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 6–May 13: Nashville, TN, to Birmingham, AL
Day 6 started with a torrential downpour–the first bad weather of the trip–that prevented us from walking around the Fisk campus and touring Jubilee Hall and the chapel. So we headed south for Birmingham, passing through Giles County, the birthplace of the Ku Klux Klan, and by Decatur, AL, the site of the 1932 Scottsboro trial. We arrived in Birmingham in time for lunch at the Alabama Power Company building, a corporate fortress symbolic of the “new” Birmingham. We spent the afternoon at the magnificent Birmingham Civil Rights Institute, where we were met by Freedom Riders Jim Zwerg and Catherine Burks Brooks, and by Odessa Woolfolk, the guiding force behind the Institute in its early years. Catherine treated the students to a rollicking memoir of her life in Birmingham, and Odessa followed with a moving account of her years as a teacher in Birmingham and a discussion of the role of women in the civil rights movement. Odessa is always wonderful, but she was particularly warm and humane today. We then went across the street for a tour of the 16th Street Baptist Church, the site of the September 1963 bombing that killed the “four little girls.”
The rest of the afternoon was dedicated to a tour of the Institute; there is never enough time to do justice to the Institute’s civil rights timeline, but this visit was much too brief, I am afraid. Seeing the Freedom Rider section with the Riders, especially Jim Zwerg and Charles Person who had searing experiences in Birmingham in 1961, was highly emotional for me, for them, and for the students. As soon as the Institute closed, we retired to the community room for a memorable barbecue feast catered by Dreamland Barbecue, the best in the business. We then went back across the street to 16th Street for a freedom song concert in the sanctuary. The voices of the Unity Memorial Choir, first formed in 1959 to help boost the morale of the Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth’s local movement, were beautiful, as always. The students were so enthusiastic, clapping rythmically and sometimes singing along, and the movement stories interspersed among the stanzas filled the church with emotion and more than a few tears. The hour-long concert ended with everyone present linking arms and singing “We Shall Overcome.” This was perhaps the most intense experience of the trip for some. Afterwards we spent a few minutes in nearby Kelly Ingram Park, site of the 1963 confrontation between Bull Connor’s attack dogs and the young marchers of the “children’s crusade.” The park now boasts “freedom sculptures” dedicated to the marchers’ courage. Back at the historic Tutwiler Hotel, the students held a 2-hour-long “teach-in,” during which they made presentations on contemporary social justice issues. This was their idea, organized by them. A fitting end to a long and emotional day on the freedom trail.
Day 7–May 14: Birmingham, AL, to Montgomery, AL
On the fiftieth anniversary of the May 14, 1961, Mother’s Day assaults on the Freedom Riders in Anniston and Birmingham, we began our day on the bus from Birmingham to Montgomery, replicating the ride of the Nashville Riders on May 20. The Nashville Riders did not stop on their journey from Birmingham to Montgomery, but we did. Thirty-five miles north of Montgomery, the back of the bus began to fill with smoke, thanks to an overstressed air conditioner hose. We had to abandon the bus temporarily, to allow the smoke to clear, as one of the logistics staff members patched up the hose with duct tape. We will stop at nothing to give the students an authentic experience reminiscent of the burning bus of 1961. Eeerily, our roadside experience occurred almost exactly 50 years to the minute after the bus was firebombed in Anniston. But the students took all of this in stride, breaking into song once we got back on the bus. As one student put it, in the words of a freedom song,”Ain’t gonna let nobody turn us ’round.”
Once we arrived in Montgomery, we toured the Civil Rights Memorial designed by Maya Lin and we all put our hands in the ceremonial water that rolls over the inscribed names of movement martyrs. Then we entered the Southern Poverty Law Center to visit the exhibits and put our names on the Wall of Tolerance–and to listen to Mark Potok’s lecture on the Center’s efforts to monitor and combat contemporary hate groups. Following an outdoor lunch at the Civil Rights Memorial, I led the students on a walk down Dexter Avenue, retracing in reverse the last stage of the 1965 Selma to Montgomery march. We passed by the old slave market site at Court Square on our way to the Rosa Parks Museum, which I helped to design in the 1990s. In the museum, the students visited the holographic bus exhibit that re-creates Rosa Parks’s 1955 arrest. We then walked past the historic Frank Johnson Courthouse, site of several of the most historic civil rights trials of the 1950s and 1960s, on our way to the old Greyhound station, site of the May 20, 1961 Freedom Rider riot. The station now houses a Freedom Rides art exhibit that will open offically next Thursday. The students got a sneak preview of the exhibit before listening to Jim Zwerg’s lecture on nonviolence. Jim was nearly beaten to death during the 1961 riot at the station, so his words had special authority. Hearing him speak in this context–with all the students gathered around, some sitting on the floor–was quite an experience.
Our next stop was the First Baptist Church–Ralph Abernathy’s church and the site of the May 21, 1961, siege, during which a white supremacist mob threatened to burn the church (with the Freedom Riders and more than a thousand supporters inside) to the ground. In 1961 the church’s basement was the scene of the famous phone calls between Dr. King and Attorney General Robert Kennedy, and that is where we had dinner before moving upstairs to the sanctuary for a screening of the American Experience film. The film has been shown in a wide variety of venues all over the world, but showing it at First Baptist had special meaning. The Q&A with Jim Zwerg and 5 other Freedom Riders following the screening was quite something, and Jim and Rip Patton closed the evening by leading us in a rendition of “Oh, Freedom.” Amen to an emotion filled day. On to Selma and Jackson on Sunday.
Day 8–May 15: Montgomery, AL, to Jackson, MS
We left Montgomery early in the morning, bound for Selma on Route 80, just as the Freedom Riders did on May 24, 1961. Fortunately, we didn’t have (or need) the protective ring of National Guardsmen with fixed bayonets, FBI agents, police cars, and military helicopters–“the apparatus of protection,” to use Jim Lawson’s words. We passed by several sites related to the 1965 Selma to Montgomery voting rights march, including the roadside monument dedicated to Viola Liuzzo, the Detroit civil rights activist murdered by Klansmen while driving along Route 80. Our first stop was Brown Chapel, the AME Church that served as the staging ground for the 1965 Bloody Sunday march. Inside this beautiful and historic church, one of the deacons talked with the students about her experiences in Selma–she was 17 in 1965–and about recent and current race relations in Selma and Dallas County. After a brief driving tour of Selma, we got off the bus and walked silently, two by two, across the Edmund Pettus Bridge, site of the Bloody Sunday police riot. The students spent a few minutes at the memorial park at the eastern end of the bridge before reboarding the freedom bus.
We headed west toward the Mississippi line and on to Meridian, our lunch stop. We paused outside the county courthouse in Meridian, the site of many voting rights struggles during the 1960s. And I told the students about Medgar Evers’s confrontation with white supremacists in Meridian in 1958 when he defied Jim Crow and sat on a front seat of a bus. We spent the night in Jackson, where the students held another teach-in on current social justice issues, and where I and the Freedom Riders attended a screening of the film at the Masonic Temple on Lynch Street, the headquarters for the NAACP, SNCC, and CORE during the Freedom Rides and after. The panel discussion following the screening feaured veterans of the Jackson Non-Violent Movement, including Hezekiah Watkins, who was the youngest Freedom Rider at age 13 in 1961, and MacArthur Cotton, a Freedom Rider in McComb, MS. Jesse Harris, the legendary SNCC actvist, was also on hand. It is somewhat strange visiting Jackson as a quasi-tourist, staying in the old King Edward Hotel just across from the Illinois Central railway station where so many Freedom Riders were arrested in 1961. History, memory, and a whirl of conflicting emotions.
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.