Raymond Arsenault, 'Freedom Riders: 1961 and the Struggle for Racial Justice'

IssueDecember 2008 - January 2009
Review by Susan Clarkson

Between May and December of 1961 nearly 60 Freedom Rides took place across the southern states of America. The Riders came from a variety of backgrounds and crossed age, gender, race, geographical, professional, religious and political boundaries.

Their aim was to challenge in a nonviolent way the state laws which segregated blacks and whites in the transport systems of the southern states. Riders travelled side by side on interstate buses, defied segregation laws in the public facilities in the bus stations they travelled through, and suffered taunts, beatings, firebombs, sieges, arrests, jail and trials during the months of the Rides and the year that followed. This book chronicles all this in vivid detail and includes many photographs of the events and of the Riders themselves.

Arsenault examines in fascinating detail the reactions to the Riders of the Kennedy administration, the civil rights activists in the states through which they travelled, the civil rights movement in general and Martin Luther King Jr.

This is the first time the story of the 436 Freedom Riders has been told in a scholarly manner, using primary sources, and the author’s indefatigable research is evident throughout. Scholarly the text may be yet it is fast moving and gives scope to the author’s undoubted talent for story telling.

An inspirational and essential reference for all students of the civil rights movement and the philosophy and practice of nonviolent direct action, it also serves to remind us as activists, when anti-American feelings run so high, of the great debt we owe to our sisters and brothers in the US for their courage in the struggle both past and present.

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