MANY AMERICANS who were alive on May 4, 1961, will remember the Freedom Riders. On that day, thirteen activists climbed aboard buses in Washington, with tickets for New Orleans. Their purpose was to challenge racial segregation in interstate travel, which the Supreme Court had declared an unconstitutional violation of human rights.
They had little trouble in Virginia and North Carolina, but as the buses rolled deeper into the South, the hostility increased. In South Carolina, the beatings began. In Georgia, Martin Luther King met them and warned, "You will never make it through Alabama." He had learned of a conspiracy by the Ku Klux Klan, the police, and local officials to stop them by brute force. The Freedom Riders pressed on with great courage, even as they knew what lay ahead. In Anniston, Alabama, one bus was stopped and set ablaze. As the Freedom Riders ran from the smoke and flames, a mob tried to murder them, while other southerners sought to save them. The other bus reached Birmingham, and the Freedom Riders were dragged off and beaten nearly to death.
These savage scenes were recorded by journalists and photographers, who were attacked as viciously as the Freedom Riders themselves. Their reports flashed around the world and inspired hundreds of Americans to make more than sixty Freedom Rides through the Deep South in 1961, which brought out more mobs and caused more violence.
The images of these events remain fresh and vivid, but the history has grown faint and hazy, and much of it was never understood. Scarcely anyone remembers the story as it actually happened. Now at last we have the first full-scale book on the Freedom Riders, by a professional historian. Raymond Arsenault is one of the most gifted scholars of his generation. He has devoted many years of deep research to this subject.
The result is truly a definitive work, which draws on unpublished writings of Freedom Riders that have never been used before. The author has