THIS IS PRIMARILY A BOOK OF INTERRELATED STORIES, and I fear that my personal story pales in comparison with the lives and experiences of the Freedom Riders. Nevertheless, I feel that I owe my readers at least a few words of autobiographical explanation, a brief reflection on how and why I came to write this book. Though born on Cape Cod in Massachusetts, I spent much of my childhood in Virginia, Maryland, and northern Florida. During the 1950s and early 1960s, several alternating stints in the North and South left me with a measure of confusion on matters of regional identity and culture. By my teenage years, making sense of race and civil rights across time and space had become both a personal passion and a survival skill. In 1961, the year of the Freedom Rides, I was a junior high school student living in suburban Maryland a few miles from the Washington bus stations that launched the first Freedom Ride. I have only vague memories of the headlines that followed and my reactions to the burning bus and the senseless beatings in Birmingham and Montgomery. I remember having sympathy for the Riders but also wondering why they had chosen such a provocative and dangerous means of protest. Like many other young Americans during the Kennedy years, I had hopeful expectations about the future of American democracy and generally trusted the administration to do what was right. This optimism was reinforced during a high school field trip in the spring of 1963 when I spent several hours in a Senate hearing room listening to Attorney General Robert Kennedy defend civil rights while withstanding a withering assault by several reactionary Southern segregationists.
Later that year, just as my family was preparing to move to northern Florida, I had a chance encounter with a group of black civil rights activists on the eve of the March on Washington. For more than two hours they explained why they had come to Washington, and when I responded sympathetically they urged me to join the march, even though I was only fifteen. The next day, as I rode southward though Virginia and the Carolinas with my parents, I was consumed with guilt and the suspicion that I had just squandered my first opportunity to witness history in the making. Over the next two years, as I navigated my way around the social conservatism of a segregated high school, this lost opportunity nagged at my conscience, though for the most part I did not act upon these feelings until later.
My interest in civil rights and civil rights history took on new life during my undergraduate years at Princeton, thanks to the inspiring teaching and engaged scholarship of Sheldon Hackney. I have often wondered what my life and career would have been like if I had not had the good fortune to become Sheldon's research assistant in the summer of 1967. A native of Birmingham with close personal and intellectual ties to the civil rights movement, he introduced me to a cast of historical characters and a hidden world of activism and struggle that I could have scarcely imagined a year earlier. Under his mentorship, I confronted the dark history of race and region while trying to deal with the confounding realities of contemporary political polarization and social fragmentation. The civil rights movement itself was fragmenting, as hope struggled against disillusionment, and the entire tumultuous scene was both fascinating and disturbing, providing me with enough puzzling questions to sustain a lifetime of inquiry and intellectual and political engagement.