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Posts Tagged ‘ Ray Arsenault ’

Day 8: Dispatch from Ray Arsenault

Monday, May 16th, 2011

Historian Ray Arsenault, author of Freedom Riders: 1961 and the Struggle for Racial Justice, writes from the 2011 Student Freedom Ride.

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 featured 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.


Day 7: Dispatch from Ray Arsenault

Sunday, May 15th, 2011

Historian Ray Arsenault, author of Freedom Riders: 1961 and the Struggle for Racial Justice, writes from the bus of the 2011 Student Freedom Ride.

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 5: Dispatch from Ray Arsenault

Friday, May 13th, 2011

Historian Ray Arsenault, author of Freedom Riders: 1961 and the Struggle for Racial Justice, writes from the bus of the 2011 Student Freedom Ride.

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.”


Day 4: Dispatch from Ray Arsenault

Friday, May 13th, 2011

Historian Ray Arsenault, author of Freedom Riders: 1961 and the Struggle for Racial Justice, writes from the bus of the 2011 Student Freedom Ride.

Day 4–May 11: Augusta, GA, to Anniston, AL

As we left Augusta, I gave a brief lecture on Augusta’s cultural, political, and racial history–emphasizing several of the region’s most colorful and infamous characters, notably Tom Watson and J. B. Stoner. Then we settled in for the long bus ride from Augusta to Atlanta, a journey that the students soon turned into a musical and creative extravaganza featuring new renditions of freedom songs, original rap songs, a poetry slam–all dedicated to the original Freedom Riders. These kids are quite remarkable.

In Atlanta, our first stop was the King Center, where we were met by Freedom Riders Bernard Lafayette and Charles Person. Bernard gave a fascinating impromptu lecture on the history of the Center and his experiences working with Coretta King. We spent a few minutes at the grave sight and reflecting pool before entering the newly restored Ebenezer Baptist Church. The church was hauntingly beautiful, especially so as we listened to a tape of an MLK sermon and a following hymn. The kids were riveted.

Our next stop was Morehouse College, King’s alma mater, where we were greeted by a large crowd organized by the Georgia Humanities Council. After lunch and my brief keynote address, the gathering, which included 10 Freedom Riders, broke into small groups for hour-long discussions relating the Freedom Rides to contemporary issues. Moving testimonials and a long standing ovation for the Riders punctuated the event. Later in the afternoon, we headed for Alabama and Anniston, taking the old highway, Route 78, just as the CORE Freedom Riders had on Mother’s Day morning, May 14, in 1961. However, unlike 1961’s brutal events, our reception in Anniston, orchestrated by a downown redevelopment group known as the Spirit of Anniston, could not have been more cordial. A large interracial group that included the mayor, city council members, and a black state representative joined us for dinner before accompanying us to the Anniston Public Library for a program highlighted by the viewing of a photography exhibit, “Courage Under Fire.” The May 14, 1961 photographs of Joe Postiglione were searing, and their public display marks a new departure in Anniston, a community that until recently seemed determined to bury the uglier aspects of its past. The whole scene at the library was deeply emotional, almost surreal at times. The climax was a confessional speech by Richard Couch, the son of a Klansman who was part of the bus-burning mob in 1961. When Mr. Couch walked over to Hank Thomas, who was savagely attacked in 1961, to embrace him and ask for forgiveness and reconciliation, there were tears all around. The students and everyone else in the room were stunned. I have never seen anything quite like that moment. Later Mr. Couch and Janie Forsyth McKinney, the 12-year old white girlwho braved the mob in 1961 to come to the Freedom Riders’ aid, joined the students at our hotel for a two-hour deiscussion of race and reconciliation. I would wager that those of us who were in that room will remember the depth of feeling and searching questions and comments of the students for the rest of our lives. Words can’t describe what took place in the hearts and minds of the Freedom Riders, young and old, last night.


Day 3: Dispatch from Ray Arsenault

Thursday, May 12th, 2011

Historian Ray Arsenault, author of Freedom Riders: 1961 and the Struggle for Racial Justice, writes from the bus of the 2011 Student Freedom Ride.

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.


Days 1 & 2: Dispatch from Ray Arsenault

Monday, May 9th, 2011

Historian Ray Arsenault, author of Freedom Riders: 1961 and the Struggle for Racial Justice, writes from the bus of the 2011 Student Freedom Ride.

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 Reed 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!


Day 1: Ryan Price

Sunday, May 8th, 2011


Oprah Winfrey Plans a Tribute

Monday, May 2nd, 2011

USF’s Ray Arsenault Watches ‘Freedom Riders’ Book Gain Steam
by Eric Deggans, St. Petersburg Times

Imagine the most powerful woman in the media at the other end of a telephone line, emotion building in her voice as she asks to bring the story of your book to millions of her devoted followers.

That’s how Oprah Winfrey joined forces with University of South Florida St. Petersburg professor Ray Arsenault after she saw the PBS documentary inspired by his award-winning book, Freedom Riders. Read more…


Ray Arsenault on NPR’s “Fresh Air”

Sunday, May 1st, 2011

Get on the Bus: 50 Years of ‘Freedom Rides’
Fresh Air from WHYY

May 4, 2011, marks the 50th anniversary of the first Freedom Ride. To commemorate the occasion Fresh Air is replaying interviews with civil rights activist James Farmer Jr., one of the organizers of the 1961 Freedom Ride, and historian Raymond Arsenault. Arsenault’s book Freedom Riders: 1961 and the Struggle for Racial Justice has just been rereleased as a companion volume to the film Freedom Riders, premiering May 16, 2011, on PBS.