USF's Ray Arsenault watches 'Freedom Riders' book gain steam

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.

Her idea: Build an hourlong discussion for her daytime talk show around the tale of more than 400 people who rode buses into Alabama and Mississippi in 1961, challenging the South's flouting of court decisions that banned segregation in interstate travel.

"She saw the film, and within 10 minutes she called (director Stanley Nelson) …, saying, 'This is one of the most moving things I've ever seen,' " said Arsenault, who has since helped Winfrey's producers track down original riders and the Klansmen who may have attacked them 50 years ago. "Now, they're just overwhelmed; how can they possibly do justice to this story in an hour show?"

For Arsenault, Winfrey's invitation completed a circle. Despite all that the Freedom Riders accomplished — pushing John and Robert Kennedy to confront Jim Crow at home and showing an awakening civil rights movement just how effective direct, nonviolent protest could be — they left one stone unturned.

They had never won the attention of America.

Until now.

"I think it really is an empowering story," said Arsenault, reclining in a comfortably cluttered office at USF St. Petersburg.

He's rarely around these days, screening the film everywhere from Iceland to Prague, speaking at events across the country, fielding movie offers and watching as the PBS film won raves at the Sundance Film Festival and nearly scored an Oscar nomination.

"Most Americans haven't known the power of these individual stories of the foot soldiers of the movement," he said. "That's what I wanted to capture in my book more than anything else."

• • •

If his parents had just signed a consent form, Tampa native Bernard Lafayette Jr. might have been one of those first Freedom Riders beaten and brutalized on their trip from Washington, D.C., on May 4, 1961.

But when he explained what the Congress of Racial Equality intended, putting white and black "freedom riders" together on buses headed into the heart of the segregated South, they had one response.

"They said, 'We're not signing your death warrant,' " recalled Lafayette, now 70. "Later, I did make out a will and left it with my books and clothing. When I returned, all my things were gone because they didn't think I was coming back."

The original Freedom Riders were supposed to occupy just two buses that would head from Washington through Alabama and Mississippi to New Orleans. When the riders were beaten in Anniston and Birmingham, Ala., and forced to fly to New Orleans after bus drivers refused to pilot their vehicles any further, the risky experiment seemed headed for defeat.

Instead, students in Nashville backed the effort with their own Freedom Ride. Lafayette was ready, quitting his studies at American Baptist Theological Seminary — where fellow rider and future U.S. Rep. John Lewis was a classmate — to join the new group in Birmingham.

"I was confident there was enough goodwill among white people that they would not stand by and watch this," said Lafayette, who speaks in the Freedom Riders documentary about facing hostile Ku Klux Klan members in Birmingham and landing in Mississippi's notorious workhouse state prison, the Parchman Farm, after police arrested all the riders.

Winonah Myers would embody Lafayette's hopes. She was a white student at the historically black Central State University in Wilberforce, Ohio, who joined the Freedom Rides after the first group was attacked.

Now married and living in Ellenton with her husband, David (who went on the rides), Myers was among 436 black and white people who eventually broke down the system by riding together on buses.

"Our feeling at the time was, 'We're going to keep coming and we're going to flood your jails, cram your dockets and break you financially,' " said Myers, 69, who stayed in Parchman for her full 6-month sentence, the only Freedom Rider to serve a full term.

"I felt there should be a little historical footnote that for sitting next to a friend on the (bus), this was the punishment meted out," she added. "I didn't think it would be recorded if no one had done the time."

• • •

Eventually, he began calling it the Monster.

That was Stanley Nelson's pet term for the Freedom Riders film, a complex tale which grew into an ambitious, multi-platform media project thanks to a $1 million grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities.

"It changed all our lives," said Arsenault. "You have podcasts and touring museum exhibits and websites and outreach. I worked with them on it almost daily for two years."

Nelson's team worked hard to find material, badgering the FBI into releasing Super 8 film footage of the bus burning near Anniston and convincing controversial figures like former Alabama Gov. John Patterson to speak about their actions.

"I've come to think that part of what he was doing is confessing," Nelson said of Patterson, a Kennedy ally who admitted to ducking the president's calls when mobs attacked the first wave of Freedom Riders.

The film weaves together interviews, news footage, photos and expert commentary to tell a sprawling story: how the National Guard was forced to save a crowd inside a Mongtomery, Ala. church gathered to support the Freedom Rides. How Martin Luther King Jr. declined to participate in the rides. (Arsenault said King's staff prevented it. Lafayette, who eventually worked with King, said he was on probation and feared being sent to a different jail.) How the Kennedys were reluctantly pulled into protecting the riders.

Some of the most affecting moments came from white Southerners who didn't support the riders.

"I asked one man about how segregation may have hurt white people, and he said it was great for them," said Nelson, noting how the man listed all the advantages for white people in jobs and society. "I don't necessarily agree with him, but he made me think about it a little differently."

• • •

Now Arsenault may have to write another book about all the ways his 2006 tome, Freedom Riders: 1961 and the Struggle for Racial Justice, has exploded across media and pop culture.

Along with the documentary airing on PBS's flagship history series American Experience, there's the whisper of feature film interest, with noted screenwriter William Broyles Jr. (Apollo 13, Cast Away) working with director Antoine Fuqua (Training Day) on a possible project.

Heirs to the Dayton and Target store fortune donated $250,000 to fund a 10-day bus trip starting May 6 for Arsenault and 40 college students through the original route, trailed by national media and accompanied by some original riders. Arsenault also has a 306-page abridged paperback version of his original 700-page book now on sale.

And then there's Oprah. Only the Queen of All Media could move the 50th anniversary celebration of the Freedom Riders' journey from the trip's original Washington, D.C., origin.

Winfrey offered to fly every living Freedom Rider to Chicago for an April 28 taping (scheduled for broadcast on the 50th anniversary May 4), leaving no doubt of the new nexus for the anniversary celebration.

"The Freedom Riders, even a lot of their children, didn't know the full story," Arsenault said. "Now they're all in demand."

It's all an attempt to grapple with what the professor calls "the nation's great dilemma" — racism.

"We tried to combine democracy and slavery, and about the only way you do that is to become a racist . . . to say somehow your slaves are not eligible for membership in the democratic club," he said. "So the wellsprings of our democracy are in some ways the wellsprings of our racism."

Now, Arsenault and Nelson can watch as their efforts take on a cultural momentum that neither could have predicted.

"It's like we're on the bus now," Nelson said. "And it's a much better ride than the Freedom Riders had, for sure."

Times researcher Shirl Kennedy contributed to this report. Reach Eric deggans at deggans@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8521. See the Feed blog at tampabay.com/blogs/media.

CORRECTION NOTICE: Roy Arsenault is a professor at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg. Earlier versions of this story appearing in print and online incorrectly identified the school.

To see the film

WEDU-Ch. 3 presents a free screening of the PBS American Experience documentary Freedom Riders at 7 p.m. Wednesday at the Tampa Theatre, 711 N Franklin St. No tickets are required. A panel discussion with Ray Arsenault and Freedom Riders the Rev. Bernard Lafayette Jr., David and Winonah Myers, and Kredelle Petway will follow the film. Freedom Riders airs on WEDU at 9 p.m. May 16. See wedu.org for details.

USF's Ray Arsenault watches 'Freedom Riders' book gain steam 04/08/11 [Last modified: Friday, April 22, 2011 12:33pm]

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