Freedom Riders: 1961 and the Struggle for Racial Justice / Edition 1

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"They were black and white, young and old, men and women. Some were college students who had just left home. Others were dedicated veterans of the old left. Yet others were ministers and rabbis. They believed in the power of non-violent protest, of direct action in the face of injustice. In the spring and summer of 1961, all of them literally put their lives on the line, riding buses through the American South to challenge segregation in interstate transport. They were the Freedom Riders, and their story is one of the most celebrated episodes of the civil rights movement. Yet no full-length history of the Freedom Rides has been written until now. In these pages, acclaimed historian Raymond Arsenault provides a gripping account of those months that jolted the consciousness of America." "The Riders were greeted with hostility, fear, and violence. They were jailed and beaten, their buses stoned and firebombed. In Alabama, police stood idly by as racist thugs battered them. Some barely escaped with their lives. When Martin Luther King met the Riders in Montgomery, a raging mob besieged them in a church, and a murderous riot was prevented only by the last-minute arrival of the National Guard." Arsenault recreates these moments with heart-stopping immediacy. His tightly braided narrative reaches from the White House - where, as he shows, the Freedom Rider crisis helped awaken the cautious Kennedy brothers to the moral power of the civil rights struggle - to the cells of Mississippi's infamous Parchman Prison, where dozens of Riders tormented their jailers nightly with rousing choruses of freedom anthems. He offers vivid portraits of dynamic figures such as James Farmer, Diane Nash, John Lewis, and Fred Shuttlesworth.
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Editorial Reviews

William Grimes
This is a story that only benefits from Mr. Arsenault's deliberately slowed-down narration. Moment by moment, he recreates the sense of crisis, and the terrifying threat of violence that haunted the first Freedom Riders, and their waves of successors, every mile of the way through the Deep South. He skillfully puts into order a bewildering series of events and leads the reader, painstakingly, through the political complexities of the time. Perhaps his greatest achievement is to show, through a wealth of detail, just how contested every inch of terrain was, and how uncertain the outcome, as the Freedom Riders pressed forward, hundreds of them filling Southern jails.
— The New York Times
Roger Wilkins
… I entirely agree with a statement made by my former Justice Department colleague the late sociologist James Laue, and quoted by Arsenault: "The national mobilization of conscience which had begun in Montgomery and grown in 1960 reached full bloom with the Freedom Rides." To find out how that happened, one must read Arsenault's superb rendering of that great saga. For those interested in understanding 20th-century America, this is an essential book.
— The Washington Post
Library Journal
Arsenault (history, Univ. of South Florida; Jacksonville: The Consolidation Story, from Civil Rights to the Jaguars) deftly weaves an intricate narrative of the 1961 Freedom Rides, the civil rights effort by black and white volunteers to enforce the integration of interstate buses and travel facilities throughout the Deep South. Narrating the origins, the violent and turbulent rides themselves, the litigation, and the legacy, this work is similar, in its skillful crafting, to James M. McPherson's Battle Cry of Freedom on the Civil War. Arsenault recounts the dynamics of the civil rights organizations that eventually banded together to sustain the Freedom Rides, as well as the individual riders who suffered mob beatings and prison sentences. The interplay of the riders with municipal and state leaders, as well as with the Kennedys and the FBI at the federal level, is skillfully portrayed. The 500 pages are justified when one considers the near inexhaustible courage of the freedom riders and the significance of the national crisis they forced. For a more concise, thesis-driven history of the Freedom Rides, consider David Niven's The Politics of Injustice: The Kennedys, the Freedom Rides, and the Electoral Consequences of a Moral Compromise. Freedom Riders will find avid readership among patrons of academic collections.-Jim Hahn, Harper Coll. Lib., Palatine, IL Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
From the Publisher

"A passionate, dazzlingly well written narrative account of the Freedom Rides, the dramatic direct actions that seemed to draw every great man (and woman) in the United States into their orbit."--Todd Moye, The Journal of Southern History

"Surely the definitive study on the topic.... Arsenault skillfully brings to life these important historical figures, revealing their courage, fear, motivations, and conflicts--both internal and external."--J.E. Branscombe, Southern Historian

"A meticulous, all-encompassing study of the 1961 Freedom Riders and their subsequent efforts. It is a must-read for all students of America's freedom movement."--Lee E. Williams II, The Alabama Review

"Drawing on personal papers, F.B.I. files, and interviews with more than 200 participants in the rides, Arsenault brings vividly to life a defining moment in modern American history.... Rescues from obscurity the men and women who, at great personal risk, rode public buses into the South in order to challenge segregation in interstate travel.... Relates the story of the first Freedom Ride and the more than 60 that followed in dramatic, often moving detail."--Eric Foner, The New York Times Book Review

"Authoritative, compelling history.... This is a story that only benefits from Mr. Arsenault's deliberately slowed-down narration. Moment by moment, he recreates the sense of crisis, and the terrifying threat of violence that haunted the first Freedom Riders, and their waves of successors, every mile of the way through the Deep South. He skillfully puts into order a bewildering series of events and leads the reader, painstakingly, through the political complexities of the time. Perhaps his greatest achievement is to show, through a wealth of detail, just how contested every inch of terrain was, and how uncertain the outcome, as the Freedom Riders pressed forward, hundreds of them filling Southern jails."--William Grimes, The New York Times

"For those interested in understanding 20th-century America, this is an essential book.... In his dramatic and exhaustive account of the Freedom Riders, Arsenault makes a persuasive case that the idealism, faith, ingenuity and incredible courage of a relatively small group of Americans--both white and black--lit a fuse in 1961 that drew a reluctant federal government into the struggle--and also enlarged, energized and solidified (more or less) the hitherto fragmented civil rights movement.... Arsenault tells the story in wonderfully rich detail. He explains how young people, knowing the brutality and danger that others had faced, nevertheless came to replace them--in wave after wave--to ride dangerous roads, to face lawless lawmen, to withstand the fury of racist mobs, to endure the squalor and danger of Southern jails--even the dreaded Parchman Farm in Mississippi."--Roger Wilkins, Washington Post Book World

"Compelling.... A complex, vivid and sympathetic history of a civil-rights milestone."--David Cohen, Philadelphia Inquirer

"Arsenault has written what will surely become the definitive account of these nonviolent protests.... Arsenault's fine narrative shows how the Freedom Rides were important journeys on the long road to racial justice."--Richmond Times-Dispatch

"This is a thrilling book. It brings to life a crucial episode in the movement that ended racial brutality in the American south, giving us both the bloody drama of the Freedom Rides and the legal and political maneuvering behind the scenes."--Anthony Lewis

"The Freedom Rides brought onto the national stage the civil rights struggle and those who would play leading roles in it.... Arsenault chronicles the Freedom Rides with a mosaic of what may appear daunting detail. But delving into Arsenault's account, it becomes clear that his record of strategy sessions, church vigils, bloody assaults, mass arrests, political maneuverings and personal anguish captures the mood and the turmoil, the excitement and the confusion of the movement and the time."--Michael Kenney, The Boston Globe

"Arsenault deftly weaves an intricate narrative of the 1961 Freedom Rides.... Narrating the origins, the violent and turbulent rides themselves, the litigation, and the legacy, this work is similar, in its skillful crafting, to James M. McPherson's Battle Cry of Freedom on the Civil War."--Library Journal

"Freedom Riders is a gripping narrative of one of the most important and underappreciated chapters in the Civil Rights movement. Raymond Arsenault shows how, in the summer of 1961, some four hundred and fifty courageous men and women took the struggle for racial justice in this country to a new level. Using hundreds of interviews and relentless research, Arsenault shows what the Freedom Riders faced on those buses, in those jailhouses, and in the midst of frenzied mobs. Freedom Riders reminds us of the moral power of direct action in the face of hostility and, sometimes worse, complacency."--Vernon E. Jordan, Jr.

"The Freedom Rides have long held an honored place in the pantheon of civil rights struggles. With this meticulous and moving book, Raymond Arsenault reminds us why. Freedom Riders is a classic American tale of courage, brutality, and the unquenchable desire for justice."--Kevin Boyle, author of Arc of Justice: A Saga of Race, Civil Rights, and Murder in the Jazz Age, winner of the 2004 National Book Award

"An exhaustively researched, gracefully written, dramatic and moving story of hundreds of dedicated men and women, black and white, who took their commitment to human rights seriously in the face of hateful, violent, and determined opposition. Raymond Arsenault has given us the gift of his humane sensitivity and his immense knowledge of the times and the lives of those whose ideals shaped late 20th century American society. On the canvas of 1960s America, he paints an unforgettable picture of young people and their elders who risked their lives for justice and offered an example to the world of humanitarian principles in action. Anyone seeking to understand the modern civil rights movement must read this book. They will be forever changed by the experience." --James Oliver Horton, Benjamin Banneker Professor of American Studies and History, George Washington University, and author of The Landmarks of African American History and co-author of Slavery and the Making of America

"Raymond Arsenault's Freedom Riders is a major addition to the already vast literature on the American civil rights movement. More than simply a well-researched study of the 1961 freedom rides, the book is an insightful, thorough, and engaging narrative of an entire era of direct action protests to end segregation in interstate transportation. Filled with vivid portraits of courageous civil rights activists (as well as government officials and notable segregationists), Freedom Riders sheds new light on a nonviolent campaign that profoundly affected southern race relations and the nation as a whole during the decades after World War II." --Clayborne Carson, Director, Martin Luther King, Jr., Research and Education Institute, editor of The Autobiography of Martin Luther King, Jr. and author of In Struggle: SNCC and the Black Awakening of the 1960s

"They were the shock troops of the civil rights movement--and more. Freedom Riders tells the stories of the men and women whose bold incursions into the Jim Crow South disrupted the static culture of the Cold War fifties and did much to set the pace and course of what followed in the 1960s. At last we have a history that captures the drama and power of this moment, cast in the fullness of the struggle for racial justice in America. It is a brilliant achievement." --Patricia A. Sullivan, Associate Professor of History, University of South Carolina, and author of Days of Hope: Race and Democracy in the New Deal Era

"Freedom Riders is a beautifully written contribution to literature. Arsenault portrays his characters so vividly that they almost step from the page, and his rich narrative comes alive with a passion and a momentum that make it difficult to put down. Freedom Riders is also a magnificent work of history, sensitively interpreted, filled with brilliant insights, and rooted in an exceptional depth of research in archival, published, and oral sources. This book propels Raymond Arsenault into the front rank of Southern writers of fact and fiction." --Charles Joyner, Burroughs Distinguished Professor of History, Coastal Carolina University, and author of Down by the Riverside and Shared Traditions

"Raymond Arsenault's compelling narrative pays homage to the hundreds of individuals, black and white, whose courage and conviction transformed the black freedom struggle at a critical moment in this nation's history. Not just the definitive history of the freedom rides, which it is, Freedom Riders demands a place on that short shelf of books that are required reading for students of the civil rights movement."--John Dittmer, Professor of History Emeritus at DePauw University, and author of the Bancroft Prize-winning Local People: The Struggle for Civil Rights in Mississippi

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780195327144
  • Publisher: Oxford University Press, USA
  • Publication date: 2/19/2007
  • Series: Pivotal Moments in American History Series
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 704
  • Sales rank: 791,691
  • Product dimensions: 8.70 (w) x 5.60 (h) x 1.90 (d)

Meet the Author

Raymond Arsenault is John Hope Franklin Professor of Southern History at the University of South Florida, St. Petersburg.

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Table of Contents

PLEASE NOTE: this TOC is for the unabridged edition.

List of Maps
Editors' Note
1 You Don't Have To Ride Jim Crow
2 Beside the Weary Road
3 Hallelujah! I'm A-Travelin'
4 Alabama Bound
5 Get on Board, Little Children
6 If You Miss Me From the Back of the Bus
7 Freedom's Coming and It Won't Be Long
8 Make Me a Captive, Lord
9 Ain't Gonna Let No Jail House Turn Me 'Round
10 Woke Up This Morning with My Mind on Freedom
11 Oh, Freedom
Epilogue: Glory Bound
Appendix: Roster of Freedom Riders

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 19, 2008

    Required Reading

    Arsenault has written an extremely detailed and researched account of the events surrounding the Freedom Riders in May 1961 through the end of that year. His narrative is gripping as he takes us through the gut-wrenching episodes of each of the earlier rides that culminated in the firstormed bus in Anniston and the violence of Bull Connors in Birmingham. Most outstanding is his chronological order of events that gives us details of the moment-by-moment happenings, but also of the subsequent complex legal proceedings that follow. Although tedious in their specifics, each of the riders' experiences are nonetheless compelling and revealing on so many levels. He exposes the hypocrisy of the white supremicists involved as well as the internal foibles that menanced the leadership of the Civil Rights Activists. He provides detailed data on each harrowing event of attempted integration and crystal views of the triumphs and shortcomings of men such as Martin Luther King Jr., and Bobby Kennedy. Many who read this book may end up questioning their own beliefs on the charismatic John Kennedy and the iconic Martin Luther - but for sure everyone will be outraged at the stark ignorance and blunt racism of those defenders of Southern segregation. From this book I came to see the courage and incredible determination of a large group of young black and white men and woman who represented the best of what America should be. It is a wonder that so many of my generation completely ignored or were just unaware or uncaring of what great sacrifices were being made in the name of freedom. This book should be required reading for every college freshman in the nation. R. Marchesani

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