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Hello, my name is Valorie. I have a Master's Degree in History and a license to teach-- I have been both university professor and public school teacher. Currently, I am a middle school social studies teacher. I love horror movies and spooky things. Every day is Halloween. I am also a passionate book blogger.

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Book Review: 23:27 by H.L. Roberts

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Book Review: Freedom Riders: 1961 and the Struggle for Racial Justice by Raymond Arsenault

Title: Freedom Riders: 1961 and the Struggle for Racial Justice
Author: Raymond Arsenault 
Genre: Nonfiction - History 
Finished: March 23, 2010 

In what author Raymond Arsenault calls the first historical study of the Freedom Rides, Freedom Riders: 1961 and the Struggle for Racial Justice is a journalistic and chronological narrative that separates, but does not isolate, the Freedom Rides from the broader context of the Civil Rights movement. Arsenault’s revisionist styled history addresses the lack of historical focus on the Freedom Rides itself, which he claims has so far only been discussed by historians as a “prelude to the climactic events” of later civil rights efforts and never on its own for its own significance (7). To Arsenault, the Freedom Rider movement was a transformative event that ushered in an era of citizen politics vital to the entire civil rights struggle (8). To tell a story that speaks of personal sacrifice and bravery, and a willingness to place oneself in personal harm for the most basic recognition of rights, the human element cannot be ignored. 

When the Freedom Riders decided to challenge their right to desegregated interstate bus travel, a right upheld by the Supreme Court, they took a personal and dangerous stand against the vehemently racist Deep South. To portray the humanity of the Freedom Rides, Arsenault says he will let the players speak for themselves throughout his monograph (9). In this, Arsenault is very successful. Using a vast archive of manuscripts that includes personal papers and scrapbooks, as well as court decisions, newspapers, government publications, and interviews, Arsenault imbues Freedom Riders with a poignancy that cannot come from chronological narration and analysis alone. For example, to depict the chaos of the Montgomery, Alabama riot of May 20th, Arsenault chooses to use the words of John Lewis himself, whose emotional and personal account of the event lends to the story an element of dramatic immediacy that academic language could never do justice to (212). To assume that Arsenault’s intent is to strictly isolate the Freedom Rides from the larger picture would be incorrect. 

The Civil Rights movement as a whole was dominated by different groups and people, all of whom engaged in an interplay of alliance, faction, and inspiration. In one of the most extensive studies of Martin Luther King and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) by David Garrow, Bearing the Cross, little attention is paid to the Fellowship of Reconciliation (FOR) and their involvement with King and the Montgomery Improvement Association (MIA). In Garrow’s interpretation, the relationship between King and FOR was based on FOR’s curiosity about King and the Montgomery boycott. When members of FOR found out King was interested in Gandhi and passive resistance, they helped provide resources to teach him more about it. ((David J. Garrow, Bearing the Cross: Martin Luther King Jr., and the Southern Leadership Conference (New York: Perennial Classics, 2004): 67-70.)) Arsenault contributes a new element to the dynamic relationship by instead insisting that the link between the two was stronger than mere curiosity and sideline influence. According to Arsenault, King and the MIA was dependant on FOR’s leadership, and it was the FOR movement that instilled the ideas of Gandhian nonviolence into King, which he would utilize passionately (70). To Garrow, it was a matter of refinement of an already adopted idea. To Arsenault, it was because of FOR that the MIA adopted the practice. Arsenault does similarly when he describes the legacy of the Freedom Rides. Due to what he sees as an historical lack of importance attributed to the Freedom Rides, it is essential for Arsenault's to define what the importance of the Freedom Riders was and remains. This required him to look outside of the Freedom Rides themselves and account for how the Freedom Rides inspired future civil rights developments. Arsenault states that the Freedom Riders nationalized their movement and would later move on to direct, participate, and inspire future acts of civil defiance such as the March on Washington, the Freedom Summer, and various voting registration drives (507). Arsenault is perhaps a bit guilty of overstating the importance of the movement itself. While the Freedom Rides no doubt inspired many, and many future Civil Rights activists would look back to the bravery of the riders for guidance, the Freedom Riders were one of several groups functioning. King and the NAACP had voting registration projects distinct from anything the Freedom Riders did, for instance. If anything, the experience gained by all of the Freedom Riders as they challenged racism head on would equip them to lead and teach others, and Arsenault is right to point this out. By participating in the Freedom Rides, many young students developed a taste for action. After surviving the violence of the KKK in Alabama and Mississippi, there was little left for them to fear of the white South, though they never underestimated the violence possible. This bravery would disseminate throughout the movement and inspire, and tested practices of nonviolence and passive resistance would be adopted by other groups. Arsenault was correct in this conclusion. 

The Freedom Rides was part of a whole rather than a pinnacle. Another one of the major successes of the book is how Arsenault fits the Freedom Riders into the political culture of the time, and also within what is happening throughout the world. Again, Arsenault removes the rides from isolation, and this time to surround them in a national and world context. In terms of the federal government, Arsenault adequately shows that the Freedom Riders exposed the tensions between federal and state governments, and also forced the national government to act in favor of them if only to protect the image of the country from bad media coverage. The federal government, as Arsenault depicts, was relatively inadequate to the task of forcing state and local governments to comply with their terms. The weaknesses of the Kennedy Administration, Hoover and the FBI, and the Supreme Court is at center stage with the Freedom Riders. Yet Arsenault rightfully too inserts further complexity in matters of election; President John F. Kennedy could not risk losing support and thus had to act in a manner that would anger his supporters the least (221-222, 244-246). Attorney General Robert Kennedy worried over whether to send federal marshals into Montgomery to quell the hostile situation there because he did not want the moral authority of the United States to be mitigated by much publicized white violence (221). The Freedom Riders, too, were very aware of what was happening in the world. African Americans throughout the United States simultaneously applauded South African apartheid protestors and lamented their similar struggles, and felt that if Africans could bring an end to colonialism and gain independence, so too could they gain their freedom (201, 431). The Freedom Rides were a complex series of rides with a rotating cast of participants who came and went over the course. Different organizations and student groups started rides of their own such as the Nashville group who decided to continue after the first Freedom Ride lest white violence become the norm against them. As a result, tracing the pattern of rides and people can get a bit difficult to follow. Thankfully, Arsenault provides maps that trace the routes of different groups, and maps that section parts of major cities off to give a geographical sense of the project. However, his text would have been easier to follow had he found a way to identify the different Freedom Ride groups in a distinct and consistent manner. Referring to every different ride as just Freedom Ride or the riders as only Freedom Riders makes for a confusing chronology. It would benefit readers more had Arsenault named each group in a manner that would recognize them more specifically, such as Nashville Freedom Riders or Mississippi Freedom Rides like he does on his map routes. The consistency alone would help connect the text to the maps and make them work in better support of each other. This does not in any way diminish the work Arsenault has produced. He states that he has set out to describe the Freedom Rides and place them back on the list of momentous Civil Rights events, and he does. The Freedom Rides are no longer just a marginal event overshadowed by King or NAACP, but an individual movement that too would motivate others while drawing the overall movement into the national eye.

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