He appears mostly in the final minutes of the program, asked a single question by the Queen of All Media.
But University of South Florida St. Petersburg professor Ray Arsenault still beams with pride while recounting his appearance on talk show queen Oprah Winfrey's program, airing at 4 p.m. today on WFLA-Ch. 8. Taped last Thursday, the show centers on the material recounted in his 2006 book Freedom Riders, about the biracial group of 436 civil rights activists who challenged segregation by riding buses into the South in 1961.
Today marks the 50th anniversary of those bus rides, which were met with angry mobs, arrests and jail time before the outpouring of riders forced true desegregation of interstate bus travel and terminals. And as a commemoration, Winfrey flew every living Freedom Rider who wanted to make the trip to Chicago for the event, filling her studio with 178 people from the 250 riders Arsenault says are still alive.
"Some of the riders had not seen their cellmates or busmates for 50 years," he said. "I kept seeing one dramatic scene after another -- it was emotionally an extraordinary moment...an out-of-body experience."
Winfrey became aware of the story after seeing a copy of the documentary made for PBS' American Experience series about Arsenault's book. Two years in the making, the Freedom Riders film has been screened everywhere from China to the Sundance Film Festival; Arsenault recalled hearing that the movie made Winfrey very emotional, convincing her to slot the riders' story among her last shows in syndicated television.
During the episode, Winfrey focuses on the freedom riders, featuring U.S. Rep. John Lewis facing Elwin Wilson, a man who beat him while Lewis was trying to enter a Whites Only bathroom in South Carolina. Wilson, who Arsenault said approached Lewis at Barack Obama's inauguration and apologized, will be shown clasping hands with the man he once assaulted as both declare they are brothers.
Arsenault has seen interest in his work explode with the 50th anniversary; NPR's Fresh Air rebroadcast an interview he did years ago for the book last Friday. On Thursday, Arsenault heads for a screening of the Freedom Riders film at the Newseum (which organizers hope the Obamas will attend); on Sunday, he will start a recreation of the riders' bus trip with a group of 40 handpicked college students and original freedom riders, traveling from Washington D.C. to all the key stops in their journey.
For the professor, Winfrey's taping was like seeing the legacy of his book's story played out before his eyes. "It sort of testifies to the power of the story...the audacity of demanding freedom now and not freedom later," he said. "They all still have that depth of commitment at the core of their personalities...They're still on the bus; they're on it for life. That's what I was thinking."