Raymond Arsenault’s Freedom Riders gives an extensive account of the Freedom Rides of 1961 within the context of the Civil Rights Movement. Reading the monograph and watching the documentary film helped bring the actions of the freedom riders to life. Sometimes the human aspects of the past are lost in the study of history.Hearing individual stories from the riders themselves makes the experience more real and personal for those who study this information in the twenty-first century.
After finishing the book, I want to read the unabridged version so that I can learn more about the courageous individuals who participated in the rides. When the Civil Rights Movement comes up, most people immediately think of Martin Luther King Jr. However, despite everything King did for the movement, so many other people deserve credit for
their brave acts. Even though none of the freedom riders were seeking fame or trying to become martyrs, it does not mean that history should not recognize them. The freedom riders were just as brave as those who participated in sit-ins, jail-ins, and the many marches of the 1960s, yet many of these people seem anonymous and unknown.
In the eyes of many, King was responsible for the successes of the Civil Rights Movement. However, historian Raymond Arsenault notes that initially King did not support the freedom riders. It was not until the rides began to garner national attention and violent reactions that some movement leaders started to voice unified support. King’s refusal to participate in any freedom rides upset many riders, but was best since his presence on a bus would have incited more violence and turmoil in cities like Birmingham and Montgomery. I understand the desire to have the iconic Dr. King on the trip to give the rides gravitas in the eyes of the public and other activists who were skeptical.
According to Arsenault, King had little to do with the Freedom Rides. I find it most impressive that men and women my age (and even a few years younger, in some cases)
took this terrifying yet crucial movement into their own hands. For Attorney General Robert Kennedy to ask “who the hell is Diane Nash” is simply incredible to me. Nash not only organized and motivated fellow students and activists in the Nashville Movement, she also managed to anger the Attorney General of the United States prior to the age of the internet—this seems like quite the feat for a young, college woman.
Freedom Riders is a magnificent book that includes individual accounts of riders, reactions from the Kennedys, and descriptions of the vast southern opposition, all while noting this troublesome history in the context of the Cold War. While the corresponding documentary film evoked an emotional reaction in me, the book certainly did as well. A monograph must be written incredibly well in order to make someone want to yell, cry, act, and read again, and Arsenault made me feel more than I could describe.