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Other titles in the Pivotal Moments in American History series:
Freedom Riders: 1961 and the Struggle for Racial Justice (Pivotal Moments in American History)by Raymond Arsenault
Synopses & Reviews
Here is the definitive account of a dramatic and indeed pivotal moment in American history, a critical episode that transformed the civil rights movement in the early 1960s.
Raymond Arsenault offers a meticulously researched and grippingly written account of the Freedom Rides, one of the most compelling chapters in the history of civil rights. Arsenault recounts how in 1961, emboldened by federal rulings that declared segregated transit unconstitutional, a group of volunteers--blacks and whites--traveled together from Washington DC through the DeepSouth, defying Jim Crow laws in buses and terminals, putting their bodies and their lives on the line for racial justice. The book paints a harrowing account of the outpouring of hatred and violence that greeted the Freedom Riders in Alabama and Mississippi. One bus was disabled by Ku Klux Klansmen, then firebombed. In Birmingham and Montgomery, mobs of white supremacists swarmed the bus stations and battered the riders with fists and clubs while local police refused to intervene. The mayhem in Montgomery was captured by news photographers, shocking the nation, and sparking a crisis in the Kennedy administration, which after some hesitation and much public outcry, came to the aid of the Freedom Riders. Arsenault brings the key actors in this historical drama vividly to life, with colorful portraits of the Kennedys, Jim Farmer, John Lewis, Diane Nash, Fred Shuttlesworth, and Martin Luther King, Jr. Their courage, their fears, and the agonizing choices made by all these individuals run through the story like an electric current.
The saga of the Freedom Rides is an improbable, almost unbelievable story. In the course of six months, some four hundred and fifty Riders expanded the realm of the possible in American politics, redefining the limits of dissent and setting the stage in the years to come for the 1963 Birmingham demonstrations, Freedom Summer and the Selma-to-Montgomery March. With characters and plot lines rivaling those of the most imaginative fiction, this is a tale of heroic sacrifice and unexpected triumph.
The author offers a meticulously researched account of the Freedom Rides, one of the most compelling chapters in the history of civil rights. The book paints a harrowing picture of the outpouring of hatred and violence that greeted the Freedom Riders in Alabama and Mississippi.
They were black and white, young and old, men and women. In the spring and summer of 1961, they put their lives on the line, riding buses through the American South to challenge segregation in interstate transport. Their story is one of the most celebrated episodes of the civil rights movement, yet a full-length history has never been written until now. In these pages, acclaimed historian Raymond Arsenault provides a gripping account of six pivotal months that jolted the consciousness of America.
The Freedom Riders were greeted with hostility, fear, and violence. They were jailed and beaten, their buses stoned and firebombed. In Alabama, police stood idly by as racist thugs battered them. When Martin Luther King met the Riders in Montgomery, a raging mob besieged them in a church. Arsenault recreates these moments with heart-stopping immediacy. His tightly braided narrative reaches from the White House--where the Kennedys were just awakening to the moral power of the civil rights struggle--to the cells of Mississippi's infamous Parchman Prison, where Riders tormented their jailers with rousing freedom anthems. Along the way, he offers vivid portraits of dynamic figures such as James Farmer, Diane Nash, John Lewis, and Fred Shuttlesworth, recapturing the drama of an improbable, almost unbelievable saga of heroic sacrifice and unexpected triumph.
The Riders were widely criticized as reckless provocateurs, or "outside agitators." But indelible images of their courage, broadcast to the world by a newly awakened press, galvanized the movement for racial justice across the nation. Freedom Riders is a stunning achievement, a masterpiece of storytelling that will stand alongside the finest works on the history of civil rights.
About the Author
"A passionate, dazzlingly well written narrative account of the Freedom Rides, the dramatic direct actions that seemed to draw every great man (and woman) in the United States into their orbit."--Todd Moye, The Journal of Southern History
"Surely the definitive study on the topic.... Arsenault skillfully brings to life these important historical figures, revealing their courage, fear, motivations, and conflicts--both internal and external."--J.E. Branscombe, Southern Historian
"A meticulous, all-encompassing study of the 1961 Freedom Riders and their subsequent efforts. It is a must-read for all students of America's freedom movement."--Lee E. Williams II, The Alabama Review
"Drawing on personal papers, F.B.I. files, and interviews with more than 200 participants in the rides, Arsenault brings vividly to life a defining moment in modern American history.... Rescues from obscurity the men and women who, at great personal risk, rode public buses into the South in order to challenge segregation in interstate travel.... Relates the story of the first Freedom Ride and the more than 60 that followed in dramatic, often moving detail."--Eric Foner, The New York Times Book Review
"Authoritative, compelling history.... This is a story that only benefits from Mr. Arsenault's deliberately slowed-down narration. Moment by moment, he recreates the sense of crisis, and the terrifying threat of violence that haunted the first Freedom Riders, and their waves of successors, every mile of the way through the Deep South. He skillfully puts into order a bewildering series of events and leads the reader, painstakingly, through the political complexities of the time. Perhaps his greatest achievement is to show, through a wealth of detail, just how contested every inch of terrain was, and how uncertain the outcome, as the Freedom Riders pressed forward, hundreds of them filling Southern jails."--William Grimes, The New York Times
"For those interested in understanding 20th-century America, this is an essential book.... In his dramatic and exhaustive account of the Freedom Riders, Arsenault makes a persuasive case that the idealism, faith, ingenuity and incredible courage of a relatively small group of Americans--both white and black--lit a fuse in 1961 that drew a reluctant federal government into the struggle--and also enlarged, energized and solidified (more or less) the hitherto fragmented civil rights movement.... Arsenault tells the story in wonderfully rich detail. He explains how young people, knowing the brutality and danger that others had faced, nevertheless came to replace them--in wave after wave--to ride dangerous roads, to face lawless lawmen, to withstand the fury of racist mobs, to endure the squalor and danger of Southern jails--even the dreaded Parchman Farm in Mississippi."--Roger Wilkins, Washington Post Book World
"Compelling.... A complex, vivid and sympathetic history of a civil-rights milestone."--David Cohen, Philadelphia Inquirer
"Arsenault has written what will surely become the definitive account of these nonviolent protests.... Arsenault's fine narrative shows how the Freedom Rides were important journeys on the long road to racial justice."--Richmond Times-Dispatch
"This is a thrilling book. It brings to life a crucial episode in the movement that ended racial brutality in the American south, giving us both the bloody drama of the Freedom Rides and the legal and political maneuvering behind the scenes."--Anthony Lewis
"The Freedom Rides brought onto the national stage the civil rights struggle and those who would play leading roles in it.... Arsenault chronicles the Freedom Rides with a mosaic of what may appear daunting detail. But delving into Arsenault's account, it becomes clear that his record of strategy sessions, church vigils, bloody assaults, mass arrests, political maneuverings and personal anguish captures the mood and the turmoil, the excitement and the confusion of the movement and the time."--Michael Kenney, The Boston Globe
"Arsenault deftly weaves an intricate narrative of the 1961 Freedom Rides.... Narrating the origins, the violent and turbulent rides themselves, the litigation, and the legacy, this work is similar, in its skillful crafting, to James M. McPherson's Battle Cry of Freedom on the Civil War."--Library Journal
"Freedom Riders is a gripping narrative of one of the most important and underappreciated chapters in the Civil Rights movement. Raymond Arsenault shows how, in the summer of 1961, some four hundred and fifty courageous men and women took the struggle for racial justice in this country to a new level. Using hundreds of interviews and relentless research, Arsenault shows what the Freedom Riders faced on those buses, in those jailhouses, and in the midst of frenzied mobs. Freedom Riders reminds us of the moral power of direct action in the face of hostility and, sometimes worse, complacency."--Vernon E. Jordan, Jr.
"The Freedom Rides have long held an honored place in the pantheon of civil rights struggles. With this meticulous and moving book, Raymond Arsenault reminds us why. Freedom Riders is a classic American tale of courage, brutality, and the unquenchable desire for justice."--Kevin Boyle, author of Arc of Justice: A Saga of Race, Civil Rights, and Murder in the Jazz Age, winner of the 2004 National Book Award
"An exhaustively researched, gracefully written, dramatic and moving story of hundreds of dedicated men and women, black and white, who took their commitment to human rights seriously in the face of hateful, violent, and determined opposition. Raymond Arsenault has given us the gift of his humane sensitivity and his immense knowledge of the times and the lives of those whose ideals shaped late 20th century American society. On the canvas of 1960s America, he paints an unforgettable picture of young people and their elders who risked their lives for justice and offered an example to the world of humanitarian principles in action. Anyone seeking to understand the modern civil rights movement must read this book. They will be forever changed by the experience." --James Oliver Horton, Benjamin Banneker Professor of American Studies and History, George Washington University, and author of The Landmarks of African American History and co-author of Slavery and the Making of America
"Raymond Arsenault's Freedom Riders is a major addition to the already vast literature on the American civil rights movement. More than simply a well-researched study of the 1961 freedom rides, the book is an insightful, thorough, and engaging narrative of an entire era of direct action protests to end segregation in interstate transportation. Filled with vivid portraits of courageous civil rights activists (as well as government officials and notable segregationists), Freedom Riders sheds new light on a nonviolent campaign that profoundly affected southern race relations and the nation as a whole during the decades after World War II." --Clayborne Carson, Director, Martin Luther King, Jr., Research and Education Institute, editor of The Autobiography of Martin Luther King, Jr. and author of In Struggle: SNCC and the Black Awakening of the 1960s
"They were the shock troops of the civil rights movement--and more. Freedom Riders tells the stories of the men and women whose bold incursions into the Jim Crow South disrupted the static culture of the Cold War fifties and did much to set the pace and course of what followed in the 1960s. At last we have a history that captures the drama and power of this moment, cast in the fullness of the struggle for racial justice in America. It is a brilliant achievement." --Patricia A. Sullivan, Associate Professor of History, University of South Carolina, and author of Days of Hope: Race and Democracy in the New Deal Era
"Freedom Riders is a beautifully written contribution to literature. Arsenault portrays his characters so vividly that they almost step from the page, and his rich narrative comes alive with a passion and a momentum that make it difficult to put down. Freedom Riders is also a magnificent work of history, sensitively interpreted, filled with brilliant insights, and rooted in an exceptional depth of research in archival, published, and oral sources. This book propels Raymond Arsenault into the front rank of Southern writers of fact and fiction." --Charles Joyner, Burroughs Distinguished Professor of History, Coastal Carolina University, and author of Down by the Riverside and Shared Traditions
"Raymond Arsenault's compelling narrative pays homage to the hundreds of individuals, black and white, whose courage and conviction transformed the black freedom struggle at a critical moment in this nation's history. Not just the definitive history of the freedom rides, which it is, Freedom Riders demands a place on that short shelf of books that are required reading for students of the civil rights movement."--John Dittmer, Professor of History Emeritus at DePauw University, and author of the Bancroft Prize-winning Local People: The Struggle for Civil Rights in Mississippi
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