USF St Pete professor's Freedom Riders book explodes across pop culture with Oprah's help
I have a theory about why we love stories on the American civil rights movement.
We're drawn to these stories, I think, for the same reason we love tales from World War II; it's a shining moment in history where we eventually overcame our prejudices and did the right thing. In fact, if the country's white majority hadn't reacted against the site of non-violent civil rights protesters being beaten and clubbed by Southern police and pro-segregation mobs, Jim Crow laws separating the races might still be the law of the American South.
That's why it's so interesting to see the explosion of popular interest in Freedom Riders, the new PBS American Experience documentary inspired by Ray Arsenault's book of the same name -- centered on black and white volunteers who tried to break the unofficial and unlawful segregation of interstate bus travel by riding into Southern cities and going into whites only waiting rooms together.
Arsenault, a professor at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg, has seen his book lauded by the Washington Post and New York Times and given life in film by one of America's leading documentarians, attracting attention from the Sundance Film Festival, the Oscars and the Writer's Guild of America.
I wrote a story on Freedom Riders' success in Sunday's paper based on a couple of powerful moments: media queen Oprah Winfrey plans to devote an episode of her show to the Freedom Riders' story, scheduled on May 4, the 50th anniversary of the rides. And local PBS affiliate WEDU-Ch. 3 has scheduled a free screening of the film at 7 tonight in the Tampa Theater, featuring a post-screening discussion with living freedom riders and Arsenault. See PBS' amazing, well-packed website for the film by clicking here.
In fact, the Hillsborough Area Regional Transit authority has organized a bus and walking tour for Hillsborough County Community College at 5:30 tonight that will traverse a dozen important sites connected to Tampa's civil rights movement. The tour ends at the Tampa Theater in time for the 7 p.m. screening -- itself an irony because activists once protested there during the movement because the theater was segregated.
To preview the screening tonight and all the wonderful Freedom Riders-related things to come in the next few weeks, I wanted to post a few cool quotes and some previews of the film. As much as I love the work Arsenault did in discovering an unheralded, overlooked part of civil rights history, I also think we need to stop trapping these stories in amber and acting as if they have no modern-day relevance.
As the freedom riders themselves will say, the struggle to make the most of their hard work and sacrifices continues today. So I hope audiences use these stories as an inspiration to challenge prejudice and stereotypes in their own worlds, rather than seeing them as a affirmation that all these issues are settled.
Ray Arsenault, author, Freedom Riders: "The book sort of rediscovered the Freedom Riders. They were never lost (laughs). They knew where they were; they were still out there, fighting for social justice but they had really been pushed to the background in terms of civil rights historiography and pretty much it. Everything before 1963 had … becomes a part of the … all part of the prelude...It reorients, in some ways, the nature of American politics. I mean, this is where the beginning of the grass-roots politics of the 1960s of ordinary people kind of taking it upon themselves to do these sort of transformative insurgencies."
Ellenton resident David Myers, a freedom rider who is white, on why he got involved with the movement while attending historically black Central State University in Ohio: "I was following the civil rights movement from the time I was 14 years old. I followed the Montgomery bus boycott and Martin Luther King. I went to school with one of the Little Rock Nine. The biggest factor was living in a room with a black person – in a third of the United States, I couldn’t ride in the same part of the bus with him. We had segregated places just within a few miles of the college campus. It made me very angry to think people are trying exercise their legal rights in peaceful protests, the violence people try to stop them and the peaceful people get arrested.”
Arsenault on Oprah Winfrey's involvement: Oprah saw it and she went to Tennessee State, a university which produced more Freedom Riders than any other place. Her father, still a barber in Nashville, knows a lot of the Freedom Riders. She saw the film and within 10 minutes, she called (director Stanley Nelson), apparently crying over the phone, saying, this is one of the most moving things I’ve ever seen. I’ve got to do it. So she’s doing it, she’s flying every living Freedom Rider that they can find – I’ve been helping them locate them. Looks like at least 150 Freedom Riders will be there, out of the probably 360 who are alive. I’ve never been able to find all of them. We probably know where about 200 of them are, so it looks like at least 150 will be there, and they’re gonna essentially be most of the audience and so I’ll be there and Stanley Nelson’ll be there. And they’ve also been doing this fascinating thing where, you know, she loves these reconciliation stories. So she’s been sending her producers – I’ve been helping her – to essentially locate Klansmen who were in the mobs. She’s hoping that some of them have had a change of heart and so her producers have been down in Anniston and Montgomery and Birmingham, and they’ve had lunch with a couple of the Klansmen. Well, they wouldn’t talk to me but they would talk to Oprah’s producers. They’re not reconciled – that’s the interesting thing. I mean, these are probably not the stories she was hoping for.… although the one Klansman who I identified in my book – and everyone has always identified as the person who threw the Molotov cocktail through the bus in Anniston – now claims he didn’t do it. And he’s agreed to meet with me. He met with Oprah’s producers and there’s a slight chance they may bring him up to be on the show."
Freedom Riders director Stanley Nelson: "We interviewed a lot of white southerners talking about race. I asked (one man) about the way it hurt white people; he said it was 'great for white people. In general, we had it all.' There were not black people working in stores. Any job where you had to meet the public was white. If you wanted a job a black person had, you could get it. He made me think about it a little differently...(But) I think that you can’t walk around with hate in one compartment of your life without it affecting your whole life. You can't say, 'I hate black people, but besides that, life’s great. I don’t think it works like that."
Arsenault on the lesson of the movement: "Frankly, I worried when I was doing the book that my narrative would not engage people because nobody dies. You know, I’m thinking on the age of Terminator II or III, Arnold Schwarzenegger kills off a thousand people in an hour. In a dramatic situation where nobody dies, will people connect to it? But they seem to. They seem to in a real way, and I think it has obvious contemporary implications. If you think about what’s been happening, obviously in Cairo and the Middle East and the whole … the role of non-violence … most Americans haven’t known the power of these individual stories of the foot soldiers of the movement, the grass roots, the sacrifices, the courage, the internal strength, the wisdom of these … what have been faceless, nameless people. That’s what I wanted to communicate in my book more than anything else. If people got nothing else out of it, that the real civil rights movement, the movement culture, although it had charismatic leaders, that’s not what it was all about. I mean, the people were inspired by Dr. King, obviously great orator, great leader, but the leadership of the movement is not the big story, you know. It’s how people transformed themselves, a sense of self-respect and that they could be part of something larger than themselves, and that’s what I see as the essence of the movement culture."