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Hollywood takes notice of USF historian's 'Freedom Riders'

In August 1963, when Raymond Arsenault was 15, his family was staying in a hotel during a move to Florida. • At the swimming pool, young Arsenault met some people who were on the way to what they told the teen would be a historic event the next day: the March on Washington for civil rights. • He was fired with the desire to witness it himself. "I told my family, 'We can't drive to Florida tomorrow,' " Arsenault says. "In the Hollywood version, we wouldn't have." • They did, but Arsenault may get a Hollywood version after all. More than four decades later, he's a distinguished historian whose two recent books about landmark events of the civil rights movement are taking unusual turns in the spotlight. Unusual, that is, for history texts. • His new book, The Sound of Freedom: Marian Anderson, the Lincoln Memorial, and the Concert That Awakened America, will have a high-profile debut on April 12 as part of a concert at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, commemorating the 70th anniversary of Anderson's historic performance there. His 2006 book, Freedom Riders: 1961 and the Struggle for Racial Justice (Oxford University Press), is the source for a documentary, now in production, that will be part of the PBS American Experience series. • And here's the Hollywood part: Arsenault just signed contracts awarding feature film rights for that book to esteemed screenwriter William Broyles (Apollo 13, Flags of Our Fathers). • "It's been amazing," he says.

'World's only demagographer'

Arsenault, 61, doesn't look like he has gone Hollywood yet. Dressed in an island shirt and navy shorts, his hair still damp from swimming laps, he looks like the co-director of the Florida studies program at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg. His spacious office on the second floor of the historic Snell House on campus is crammed with books and sports memorabilia, punctuated with items like a Woodstock poster, a portrait of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and a Russian nesting doll in the image of Bill Clinton.

Arsenault is also the John Hope Franklin professor of Southern history, a position named for the influential black historian. After Franklin died last week, Arsenault said that the 94-year-old scholar had "really invented African-American history as a field."

"When I was starting out" on an academic career, Arsenault says, "people didn't market themselves as civil rights historians. It was a subset of Southern history."

He earned a doctorate at Brandeis. "My dissertation was on Southern demagogues, kind of redneck history. My friends used to joke I was the world's only demagographer. I wrote about the bad guys; now I write about the good guys."

Arsenault was born in Hyannis., Mass., "as Yankee as you can get," but because his father was in the Navy, the family lived all around the Southeast as he was growing up. "My only source of stability was Fenway Park."

A grandmother who "thought of herself as the last of the Boston Brahmins, kind of a neo-abolitionist," influenced his views, and by the time he was in high school in Fernandina Beach, he was a vocal integrationist.

There he met his wife, Kathy. "That's kind of what brought us together, dissent." They've been married 41 years. She is dean of USF's Nelson Poynter Memorial Library; they have two daughters, Amelia, a doctoral candidate in global media and diplomacy, and Anne, a law student.

While he was an undergraduate at Princeton, Arsenault first got a campus job as a busboy. "I wasn't a very good busboy, so they made me a research assistant" for prominent civil rights historian Sheldon Hackney.

"At 19 I was thrown into this world of black and white civil rights activists, and it became a passion."

He worked with a friend for years on a book about the Montgomery bus boycott. "But with this kind of story you have to speak with your own voice," he says, so he turned to a solo project on the Freedom Riders.

'Lump in your throat'

Those activists, black and white, set out in 1961 to challenge Jim Crow segregation of transportation in the South. In the most infamous incident of opposition to their efforts, one of their buses was firebombed outside Anniston, Ala., by Ku Klux Klan members and others. The mob held the doors of the bus closed until an exploding fuel tank drove them back and allowed the Freedom Riders to escape — some to beatings by the crowd.

Freedom Riders had been percolating for years," Arsenault says. "It just poured out of me." The book, a vivid, tautly written narrative that reads almost like a novel, won the 2006 Owsley Prize of the Southern Historical Association.

Interest from filmmakers was almost immediate, Arsenault says. "When you have a story where 19-year-old kids are writing their wills and telling their families goodbye" before boarding the buses, "it kind of puts a lump in your throat."

While he was a visiting professor at the University of Chicago in 2007, one of his students read the book and passed it along to her father — who turned out to be Mark Samels, executive producer of American Experience.

"It was a dream to have them want to do this," Arsenault says, and he's thrilled that it's being directed by Stanley Nelson, "one of the best documentary filmmakers in the world." Nelson has been a MacArthur "genius" fellow and the director of documentaries on the murder of Emmett Till and the Jonestown suicides.

Long before Arsenault published his book, Broyles had been interested in writing a movie about the Freedom Riders and had done some of the research. "He said when my book was published it was manna from heaven." Working out details took three years, but Broyles visited St. Petersburg recently to talk about his plans for the movie.

'Just one person'

Arsenault teaches a course in history and film. "I'm kind of a purist. I don't like fictional characters or composites. But he may have to do some of that. If I had been writing fiction, there wouldn't have been 436 Freedom Riders."

Broyles passed along a warning, he says: "He told me not to get too excited when I hear about big names being connected to it. It takes time. But he's determined to do the movie."

Arsenault spent about 10 years researching and writing Freedom Riders. He produced Sound of Freedom in only two years: "It nearly killed me. Historians are slow journalists. Very slow. We're not good with deadlines."

But finishing the book for publication this year was important because of a "perfect storm of commemoration": the 200th anniversary of Abraham Lincoln's birth, 100th anniversary of the NAACP and 70th anniversary of Anderson's concert at the Lincoln Memorial, a major event in civil rights history.

Anderson was one of the first African-American performers to have a big crossover audience. A classically trained contralto, she was the toast of Europe and regularly filled concert halls across the United States in the 1930s.

In 1939, her managers tried to schedule a concert at the 4,000-seat Constitution Hall, then the largest venue in Washington. The hall's owners, the Daughters of the American Revolution, turned her down, citing a whites-only policy.

The concert became a cause celebre — first lady Eleanor Roosevelt, who had hosted Anderson at the White House, resigned her membership in the DAR in protest — and on Easter Day 1939, Anderson sang at the Lincoln Memorial before a crowd, black and white, estimated at 75,000.

"I feel doubly privileged that there were these two civil rights milestones that I got first crack at," Arsenault says. Both Anderson and the Freedom Riders are "countervailing examples" at a time when people feel overwhelmed by social and economic forces. "We feel, 'What can I do? I'm just one person.' Well, they were ordinary people doing extraordinary things."

This Easter Sunday, the concert at the Lincoln Memorial will feature opera star Denyce Graves, a cappella ensemble Sweet Honey in the Rock, the Chicago Children's Choir, the U.S. Marine Band — and Arsenault's book signing of Sound of Freedom.

"My daughters always say, 'Dad, when are you going to get off the bus?' But the bus is still rolling. I feel so lucky to be part of all this."

Colette Bancroft can be reached at or (727) 893-8435.

The Sound of Freedom: Marian Anderson, the Lincoln Memorial, and the Concert That Awakened America

By Raymond Arsenault

Bloomsbury, 310 pages, $25

On the Web

See a YouTube video of Marian Anderson singing at the Lincoln Memorial:

Hollywood takes notice of USF historian's 'Freedom Riders' 04/04/09 [Last modified: Saturday, April 4, 2009 4:30am]
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