When historian Raymond Arsenault set out, more than a dozen years ago, to research and write a book about the Freedom Riders, did he have any inkling he would end up at the 2011 Emmy ceremony, where Freedom Riders, a film based on his book of the same title, would win three awards? • "Not in a thousand years," he says. Nor did Arsenault, the John Hope Franklin professor of Southern history and co-director of the Florida studies program at the University of South Florida-St. Petersburg, dream the book would propel him into an appearance on Oprah Winfrey's television show, a re-creation of the 1961 Freedom Rides with 40 college students — or, on Wednesday, to a screening of the documentary at the White House.
Arsenault will appear at the Times Festival of Reading on Saturday with three of the original Freedom Riders, Kredelle Petway and David and Winonah Myers, and the producer of the film, Laurens Grant. The presentation will be a memorial to USFSP professor Bob Hall, who died Oct. 1.
Freedom Riders: 1961 and the Struggle for Racial Justice was Arsenault's sixth book and the first full historical study of the protest in which hundreds of riders, black and white, journeyed on buses through the South to bring attention to Jim Crow travel laws, They met with arrests and mob violence but ultimately helped to draw the world's eyes, and support, to the civil rights struggle.
"It turned out to be a much larger project than I could ever have imagined," Arsenault says. "I kept finding more and more Freedom Riders and more and more stories." A proposed 300-page volume became a book of more than 700 pages, which sold about 20,000 copies — "an academic bestseller."
He says he knew the book had cinematic possibilities. "In the back of my mind I always thought American Experience, but I knew the chances were slim. They get hundreds of books," Arsenault says of the PBS documentary series. "So I think something amazing was operating."
The first something amazing was that while teaching at the University of Chicago for a couple of semesters, Arsenault had a student, Zoe Samel, who was the daughter of Mark Samel, executive producer of American Experience. "She said, 'Dad, you have to read this book,' and the next thing you know I was on a plane to Boston."
The resulting film, written and directed by Stanley Nelson and released in 2010, won Emmy awards for editing, writing and exceptional merit in nonfiction filmmaking.
"It was the Creative Emmy Awards, but it was glittery enough," Arsenault says. "Red carpet, limos, starlets, after parties. The party we went to was like the prom on steroids. The PBS people were so happy — they won 10 awards total — especially after the negative attacks of last year."
That was in June; in May, Arsenault appeared on The Oprah Winfrey Show as part of a 50th reunion of the Freedom Riders. Arsenault was there to consult with the show's producers, but, he says, "I didn't know I'd be on stage until one day before.
"They had done a tremendous amount of preparation and gone to enormous expense to bring in 180 Freedom Riders."
Days after that, Arsenault led a re-creation of the Freedom Rides with 40 college students and several of the original riders. "That whole tour was just amazing," he says of a trip that evoked public reconciliation in Anniston, Ala., the city where a Freedom Ride bus was firebombed and riders who fled the flames were beaten by white residents.
Arsenault will visit the White House this week for a screening of the film, appearing with journalist John Seigenthaler and civil rights icons John Lewis and Diane Nash for a discussion focusing on the Freedom Rides and the law. "It's not clear whether the Obamas will be there; this is more for the Justice Department. I'm hoping he'll come," Arsenault says of the president.
In March, an abridged 320-page version of Freedom Riders was published in paperback by Oxford University Press and "skyrocketed" after the Oprah appearance. "You can't cut it in half and not lose something, but people who've read it seem to love it," Arsenault says.
He's working now on his eighth book, about tennis great and civil rights activist Arthur Ashe, to be published in 2013.
"Race and civil rights have motivated me since I was a teenager. From early on, I knew this was my life's work."