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A Freedom Ride Organizer On Non-Violent Resistance
DAVE DAVIES, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, sitting in for Terry Gross.
Next week marks an important anniversary in the civil rights movement. Fifty
years ago, on May 4, 1961, the first bus carrying an integrated group of self-
proclaimed Freedom Riders left Washington, D.C. and headed towards the South.
On today's FRESH AIR, as we think about events in the South which took place 50
years ago in a different era, we also want to send our sympathies and best
wishes to the thousands of people who have suffered losses from the destruction
of tornadoes, which tore through the South earlier this week.
During the spring and summer of 1961, the Freedom Riders challenged segregation
by riding together on buses through the Deep South. They demanded unrestricted
access to segregated buses, as well as bus terminal restaurants and waiting
The Freedom Riders were pledged to non-violence and kept that pledge even when
attacked and bloodied by their racist opponents. Our guest, Raymond Arsenault,
is the author of a book called "The Freedom Riders."
Before we meet him, we're going to hear an excerpt of an interview Terry
recorded with the late James Farmer, a co-founder of the riders and of CORE,
the Congress of Racial Equality. In this 1985 interview, he described a turning
point for the Freedom Riders, when the group he was traveling with was arrested
Mr. JAMES FARMER (Co-founder, Congress of Racial Equality): There were three
charges: disobeying an officer, disturbing the peace, and inciting to riot. We
were arrested by Captain Ray(ph), who was the chief of police of the city of
Jackson, when he ordered me to move on, and I asked where.
The young lady with me who had locked arms with me, she and I were about to go
into a restaurant there in the waiting room, the white waiting room, for
dinner. And other Freedom Riders followed the two of us and were similarly told
to get into the paddy wagon. And we were taken to jail.
Then I sent orders by my lawyer to my CORE staff in New York to begin
immediately recruiting Freedom Riders, white and black, from all over the
country, sending them into Jackson to try in true Gandhian fashion to fill up
We were not going to bail out. We were going to stay in as long as we could
stay in and still file an appeal, and that turned out to be 40 days and 40
TERRY GROSS, host:
Did the jails want you out?
Mr. FARMER: Yes. They quickly found out that we were not going to bail out
right away. And then what they wanted to do was to make it so uncomfortable for
us that we'd wish we had never come, and we'd stop others from coming.
They did not physically beat us, though they tried once, at one place, and that
backfired because I got one young man bailed out and he called the FBI, and he
also held a press conference. So that stopped the physical brutality.
But they did such things as putting so much salt in the food that we couldn't
eat it. Many of us were chain smokers, and we were denied any cigarettes, but
the guards would walk by our cells puffing on cigarettes and blowing the smoke
into our cells at great length.
We were students or readers. They denied us any newspapers or any books,
refused to let any come in, refused to let us have any paper or any pencils to
do any writing whatsoever.
We were denied any visitors except our lawyer. This was psychological
GROSS: You were also banned from singing at one point.
Mr. FARMER: Well, they tried to stop us from singing. We sang. We sang all the
freedom songs we knew, and we made up new ones. I made up one song, wrote one
song. Actually, it was - I put new words to an old labor song, "Which Side Are
GROSS: What were the words you wrote?
Mr. FARMER: Well, these words. I can't sing. So I won't even try to sing it. It
said: Come all you freedom fighters, good news to you I'll tell, of how the
good old freedom ride has come in here to dwell. Which side are you on? Which
side are you on? Which side are you on? Which side are you on? They say in
Hinds County, where Jackson was - Jackson, Mississippi - no neutrals have they
met. You're either for the freedom ride, or you're Tom for Ross Barnett - he
was the governor of Mississippi. My father was a freedom fighter, and I'm a
freedom fighter's son, and I'll stick to the freedom ride till every battle's
Well, the jailors went wild at our singing because we were singing as loudly as
we could, and our voices were wafting out over the city of Jackson. And the
windows were open.
They would come in and slam our windows shut, and we would open them again and
sing more and more and more. Other freedom riders, the black women in another
wing, the white men in another wing, the white women in another wing, would
pick up the song. And so the jailhouse was rocking with freedom song.
The jailors are running around saying: Stop that singing. Stop that singing.
Stop it. And we continued singing because it was good for our morale. It was
good for our morale, and we - if there were any fear left in us, that fear was
dissipated by the song.
GROSS: What did they do to try to prevent you from singing after closing the
window and yelling at you didn't work?
Mr. FARMER: Well, in Parchman, the state penitentiary, said if you don't stop
that singing, we'll take away your mattresses. Now, that sounds like a juvenile
threat, but it was an important threat because the little thin straw mattress
was the only comfort we had. Everything else was cold, hard, stone and steel in
those tiny little cells.
But there was this little mattress, which was comfort, which was a symbol of
home, symbol of domesticity. And now they were going to take that away. We'd
have nothing else.
Well, that caused some people to stop singing for a while, until one young man,
who was a Bible student, reminded everybody what they were doing, that here
they're trying to take your soul away, you see. It's not the mattress. It's
And then one Freedom Rider yelled: Guards, guards, guards. And the deputy came
running out into the cellblock to see what was wrong, and this Freedom Rider
shouted: Come get my mattress. I'll keep my soul. And then song exploded again,
we began singing.
Then another time...
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. FARMER: I have to laugh when I think of this. One Freedom Rider was
complaining that this deputy, who was in charge of the guards, always called us
boy, you boys. He said: Why does he always call us boy? We're men. I think we
ought to refuse to answer until he calls us men.
Another one reminded him that that was just a custom down South, and he didn't
mean any derogatory by it. So this fellow said, first fellow said: I think I'll
ask him. He called Deputy Tyson, said: Deputy Tyson. What? Says: Do you mean
anything derogatory when you call us boy? Deputy Tyson said: I don't know
nothing about no rogatory(ph). All I know is if you boys don't stop that
singing, you're going to be singing in the rain.
And then somebody started singing again. They pulled in the high-pressure fire
hose and washed us all down with it. We tumbled over, and everything was
floating in the water in our cells.
One of the Freedom Riders then yelled: Deputy Tyson, next time you're going to
do that, bring us some soap so we can take a shower.
(Soundbite of laughter)
DAVIES: The late James Farmer, speaking with Terry Gross, recorded in 1985. He
died in 1999. You can hear the complete interview at our website,
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Get On The Bus: 50 Years Of 'Freedom Rides'
DAVE DAVIES, host:
Raymond Arsenault is the author of the book "Freedom Riders: 1961 and the
Struggle for Racial Justice." Arsenault is the John Hope Franklin Professor of
Southern History at the University of South Florida in St. Petersburg. Terry
spoke with him in 2006.
TERRY GROSS, host:
Raymond Arsenault, welcome to FRESH AIR. We heard James Farmer describing that
the Freedom Riders didn't want to be bailed out of the Parchman prison. What
was the philosophy behind that jail, no bail approach they took?
Professor RAYMOND ARSENAULT (University of South Florida): This was one of the
most controversial innovations of the Congress of Racial Equality.
There had been talk about jail, no bail for years, in the late 1950s, but no
one had either marshaled enough courage or audacity to try it on any kind of
mass level. And the first jail, no bail actually took place in Tallahassee,
Florida. A young activist named Patricia Stephens(ph) and several other
activists decided to take Gandhian philosophy literally and to fill the jails
as best they could.
And then there are another jail, no bail incident in Rock Hill, South Carolina,
in early 1961, and this gave the CORE, Congress of Racial Equality, leaders
hope that this could become kind of standard operating procedure in the
movement. But the freedom rides was really the first time this was tried on any
kind of mass level.
GROSS: Why was it controversial within the civil rights movement?
Prof. ARSENAULT: It seemed to go against common sense. It seemed
counterintuitive, I think, to a lot of people. Thurgood Marshall made a famous
statement in Nashville when he was lecturing at Fisk, and he was criticizing
the jail, no bail.
And he said: For God's sake, if somebody can get you out, get out. Take the
offer. Anybody who knows what it's like to be in a Southern jail, to be a black
person or even a white person who's a dissenter in jail, knows it's a very
dangerous place to be. So Marshall was taking perhaps the more pragmatic view.
But jail, no bail became a badge of honor and an elemental strategy for CORE
during the early 1960s.
GROSS: Was it a troublesome move(ph) for the prison authorities because they
had to deal with all of these civil rights activists who were being very
disruptive to the prison system?
Prof. ARSENAULT: I think it was very confounding for them. They were accustomed
to intimidating people. They had all kinds of ways of manipulating and
threatening and in many cases actually physically harming people.
And, you know, Southern jails and particularly Southern prisons, Parchman being
the most notorious, but even the county jails and the city jails, they weren't
accustomed to people, you know, trying to stay inside the bars. And so it
defied logic for them, and they didn't know quite how to deal with it.
GROSS: So when the Freedom Riders refused to post bail, how did they get out of
Prof. ARSENAULT: Well, in the case of most of the Freedom Riders who ended up
behind bars in Mississippi, more than 300 ended up in Parchman Prison, there
was a quirk of Mississippi law which said you had to get out before 40 days to
be able to file an appeal.
And of course ultimately what the Congress of Racial Equality and the Freedom
Riders and the other organizations involved wanted to do was to create a test
case to force the legal justice system, if possible, at the local and state
level, but at least at the federal level, to endorse and to sustain and protect
their constitutional rights. So they needed these appeals.
So they would stay in for 39 days, but they would get out on time so that they
could file their appeals in the Mississippi case, and almost all the Southern
states had some quirks like this.
Part of the game in the freedom rides between whites - the white
segregationists and the Freedom Riders was a test of resources. They kept
increasing the bond that they had to post.
They tried to break the civil rights movement financially. They knew that
resources were limited and that most of those resources were with the NAACP,
which had an ambivalent attitude towards the freedom rides, that there was a
feeling that the freedom rides was an enormous gamble, that if all this money
was poured into it and there were no positive results, then the movement would
be set back, that it would not advance. So there were a lot of people within
the movement who had very serious questions about the wisdom of playing this
very dangerous game.
DAVIES: Raymond Arsenault, speaking with Terry Gross. He's the author of the
book "Freedom Riders: 1961 and the Struggle for Racial Justice" Next week marks
the 50th anniversary of the beginning of the freedom rides. We'll hear more
after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
DAVIES: Our guest is Raymond Arsenault, author of the book "Freedom Riders:
1961 and the Struggle for Racial Justice."
GROSS: The Freedom Riders were challenging segregation on interstate bus rides.
Now, buses had long been the center of protest in the South. Why were buses at
the center of civil rights actions throughout the 20th century?
Prof. ARSENAULT: Well, there was an ongoing debate among civil rights activists
as to where to place stress on the move for desegregation. Where should they
begin? Should they begin with the schools? Should they begin with unemployment
or employment policies? Should they begin with transportation? And there was no
consensus on this matter.
They were fighting on all fronts. But the buses and the trains and the
streetcars were a daily irritant for blacks. So it was a natural place where
people would file lawsuits, where would try to test the limits of Jim Crow
And this was particularly true in the 1940s, when people began to have sort of
individual freedom rides. They didn't use that term, but there were a number of
people who challenged Jim Crow conventions.
Jackie Robinson, 1944, refused to move to the back of the bus near Fort Hood in
Texas, and he was court-marshaled. He was eventually exonerated, but that was
just one example.
GROSS: Now, the Freedom Riders were specifically testing new law. What law were
Prof. ARSENAULT: They were testing compliance. There had been an attempt to
test compliance back in the 1940s. There was a landmark Supreme Court decision,
Morgan vs. Virginia, in 1946. Irene Morgan was a woman from Baltimore who was
arrested for refusing to go to the back of the bus, sort of Rosa Parks-style in
She represented herself at first, then the NAACP took her case. Thurgood
Marshall and others took it all the way to the Supreme Court, and they won. And
it seemed like segregation on interstate buses and trains had been declared
illegal, but the attorneys general and other officials in the South simply
ignored the decision.
And they made all kinds of excuses why they couldn't enforce it. They said that
the segregation was actually being maintained by company rules, railroad
corporations and bus corporations, that it really wasn't state law that was
mandating Jim Crow, all those sorts of things.
This led to the first freedom ride. They didn't call it a freedom ride. It was
known as the Journey of Reconciliation, where 16 volunteers who belonged to the
Fellowship of Reconciliation and the Congress of Racial Equality decided to do
a freedom ride to test compliance with the Morgan decision.
But they only did it in the Upper South. They knew if they went to the Deep
South, to Alabama and Mississippi, it might mean major violence, maybe even
certain death for them. So they spent two weeks in April of 1947 traveling on
trains and buses in Virginia and Tennessee and Kentucky and North Carolina.
Several of them were arrested. Baird Rustin(ph), one of the organizers, and
three others ended up on a chain gang for 22 days in North Carolina. But they
didn't get a lot of attention. The press carried it, but it really didn't
effect a revolution. But it set a model for civil rights, non-violent direct
GROSS: So what happened in 1961 that led to the formation of the freedom rides?
Prof. ARSENAULT: The election of John Kennedy gave new hope, I think, to civil
rights activists. Even though he didn't have a particularly strong record as a
senator, had not shown a great interest in civil rights, he talked about a new
He occasionally used the rhetoric of freedom that suggested that he might be
open to this not just in foreign affairs but in rearranging the nature of
domestic life in the United States.
And of course there were the onset of the sit-ins, beginning in Greensboro,
North Carolina, in February of 1960, the so-called youth movement, which is a
harbinger, of course, of things to come later in the 1960s. So there was a
sense that maybe non-violent direct action on a mass scale was becoming
possible, even in the Deep South.
GROSS: When the Freedom Riders formed in 1961, did they have the same goal as
the group in 1947 did, to try to force the government to enforce an already
existent law that said that interstate bus travel could no longer be
Prof. ARSENAULT: There were two landmark Supreme Court decisions: Morgan vs.
Virginia in 1946, which seemed to outlaw segregation on interstate buses and,
by argument, trains; but then in 1960, in December of 1960, there was a second
decision, the Boynton vs. Virginia decision, which appeared to outlaw
segregation in public accommodations related to interstate travel, so that you
could get a cup of coffee at a lunch counter in a train station or in a bus
station if you were involved in interstate transportation.
It used the Interstate Commerce Clause as the legal kind of lever to strike
down state and local laws which mandated segregated facilities in restrooms, in
restaurants and lunch counters and so forth.
So there were two decisions, and it was really the Boynton decision in December
of 1960 which was the immediate sort of reason for thinking that another
freedom ride or set of freedom rides was in order.
DAVIES: Raymond Arsenault, speaking with Terry Gross. Arsenault is the author
of the book "Freedom Riders: 1961 and the Struggle for Racial Justice." He'll
be back in the second half of the show. Here's a 1963 recording of the CORE
Freedom Singers, singing "Get Your Rights, Jack," their own version of the Ray
Charles hit. In this version, the chorus urges Jack not to be a Tom and to join
the movement. Jack decides to get on board, then demands his rights from
Mississippi Governor Ross Barnett. I'm Dave Davies, and this is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of song, "Get Your Rights, Jack")
DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies in for Terry Gross.
Today weâre commemorating an important anniversary in the civil rights
movement. Fifty years ago next week, the first busload of integrated groups of
civil rights activists, known as the Freedom Riders, rode through the South to
force compliance with the law desegregating interstate transportation. The
Freedom Riders were pledged to nonviolence, and remained nonviolent in the face
of brutal attacks against them.
In 2006, Terry spoke with Raymond Arsenault, author of the book âFreedom
Riders: 1961 and the Struggle for Racial Justice.â
TERRY GROSS, host:
So the initial group of Freedom Riders that CORE organized was basically
handpicked. I mean you almost had to audition to be part of it. Why were they
so carefully selected?
Mr. RAYMOND ARSENAULT (Author, "Freedom Riders"): CORE had a philosophy of
using a vanguard of carefully trained, disciplined, nonviolent activists who
would not strike back no matter what happened. They felt that this was
absolutely crucial, that you needed people who understood the responsibilities
of nonviolence. They were terrified that if undisciplined activists were
provoked it would turn into violence and that the cause of the movement would
be set back, so they were very carefully chosen.
There were several dozen applicants and they had to be vouchsafed by ministers,
by employers. If they were under 21 they had to get their parent's signature.
They had to explain why they wanted to go on the Freedom Ride and that they
were willing to follow the orders of CORE. This was extremely important part of
the strategy of the original Freedom Ride.
GROSS: And did that careful selection continue through the history of the
Mr. ARSENAULT: It actually didn't continue exactly the way they hoped it would.
There were ultimately 436 Freedom Riders, remarkably diverse group of people.
It was intergenerational. It was interregional. It was interracial. The pace of
events dictated trying to fill the buses, to fill the jails in Mississippi, to
maintain the pressure, to convince Southern segregationists that the Freedom
Riders were not going to go away.
So there were instances where people got on the Freedom buses without being
carefully screened, and there were a couple of cases where Freedom Riders
turned on each other with recriminations. There were - it was an enormously
difficult thing to organize, to administer.
The civil rights movement was just emerging as a national phenomenon. They had
never tried to do anything on this scale before. You had several organizations
- CORE, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, the Nashville Movement,
the NAACP, Fellowship of Reconciliation - getting all these people to be on the
same page and to make sure that there were no provocateurs, that there weren't
FBI informers or there were - or Klan informers or people who were not working
in the best interest of the Freedom Rides, it was not easy to maintain the
discipline. And I think in general they were remarkably successful in doing so.
There were relatively few incidents but it didn't have the purity of the
original rides certainly in the later stages.
GROSS: It was the job of the Freedom Riders to remain nonviolent in spite of
whatever anyone tried to do to provoke them. What were some of the violent acts
directed against them that they had to endure?
Mr. ARSENAULT: Well, of course, the most famous violent acts were the bombing
of a bus in Anniston, Alabama, where the Freedom Riders â the original Freedom
Riders, one group of them, there was an attempt to burn them alive in the bus.
They were attacked by a mob of Klansmen - actually both men, women and children
dressed in their Sunday best. It was a horrific episode which I think really
scarred many of the people who endured it, who survived it.
Then, of course, the other bus that had been sent from Atlanta got to
Birmingham and there had been collusion between the Commissioner of Public
Safety, Bull Connor, and the police department and several klaverns of the Ku
Klux Klan. And there was a Klan mob which attacked the Riders as soon as they
got to the Birmingham station.
There were, of course, later attacks in Montgomery. After that the civil rights
movement sort of decided they had to take a stand, that they could not allow
the violence in Alabama to end the Freedom Riders in failure. And so Martin
Luther King and other civil rights leaders flew into Montgomery to hold a rally
in First Baptist Church, Reverend Ralph Abernathy's church.
The church was surrounded by a mob of several thousand white supremacists.
There was a fear that they were actually were going to burn the church to the
ground. This was all in front of a number of reporters and television cameras.
Eventually, Governor John Patterson, who was a committed segregationists, but
decided to mobilize the National Guard at the last minute to save the church
and to save the Freedom Riders and their allies.
And, of course, this is what, this episode in Montgomery on May 21st, 1961 is
what drew the Kennedy administration into the fray. They had to send federal
marshals to try to mitigate the situation.
GROSS: What did the FBI do about the Freedom Riders and about the white
supremacists who were attacking them and the Southern police and sheriffs who
weren't doing much to protect the Freedom Riders?
Mr. ARSENAULT: J. Edgar Hoover had no sympathy for civil rights activists. He
was an avowed segregationist, a supporter of the status quo, and he sent that
message down to the FBI. And basically the FBI in the southern scene, they
often knew what was about to happen. And, of course, they had advanced
information about the bus burning in Anniston and the mob gathering in
Birmingham, but this information was not forwarded to the rest of the Justice
Department. And from that day on, Robert Kennedy was not able to trust J. Edgar
DAVIES: Raymond Arsenault is the author of the book âFreedom Riders: 1961 and
the Struggle for Racial Justice.â We'll hear more after a break. This is FRESH
(Soundbite of music)
DAVIES: We're listening to Terry's 2006 interview with Raymond Arsenault. His
book âFreedom Ridersâ is about the integrated group of civil rights activists
who rode buses together through the Deep South in 1961 to force the government
to comply with the law desegregating interstate transportation.
GROSS: In your book about the Freedom Riders, you describe the Kennedy
administration as initially seeing the Freedom Riders as a distraction from
what the Kennedy administration really wanted to deal with at the time, which
wasn't the civil rights movement, it was the Cold War. It was Cuba. It was the
Soviet Union. So would you describe a little bit the Kennedy administrationâs
take on the Freedom Rides and how they initially handled it?
Mr. ARSENAULT: Both President John Kennedy and Attorney General Robert Kennedy,
initially at least, and for a long time considered the Freedom Rides to be a
very disturbing distraction. The Cold War was at its height. The Freedom Rides
came just after the Bay of Pigs fiasco. John Kennedy was just about to go on
his first international summit meeting in Vienna. He had Khrushchev to deal
with. The building of the Berlin Wall was imminent. The world seemed to be
coming apart at the seams and he did not want, you know, strife in the streets
of Alabama to be on the front page.
There was a strong sense among the Kennedys and many other Americans that what
the Freedom Riders were doing was disloyal. That even though they may have
admired their courage, they questioned their wisdom and there were very often
charges of disloyalty. Why couldn't the Freedom Riders wait for a better time?
Couldn't they see that there was a deeper agenda of countering the propaganda
of the Soviet Union, of making the United States look bad on the international
And, of course, what all this had to do with was the change situation with
respect to the decolonization of the Third World. Suddenly people of color had
an important part play in the balance of power in the world and the civil
rights leaders, particularly those involved the Freedom Rides sensed this, that
they could use this as a lever, as a way of saying, you know, if you want to
claim a legitimacy to American democracy and to spread it abroad then you've
got to live up to your own ideals at home.
GROSS: So what action did the Kennedy administration take when the Freedom
Riders were being jailed and beaten?
Mr. ARSENAULT: The Kennedy administration at first, they sent John
Seigenthaler, who was a native of Nashville, Tennessee, a personal
representative of both the president and the attorney general, down to try to
make sure that the Freedom Riders stayed â the original Freedom Rides stayed
alive. He flew with them - when they gave up traveling from Birmingham to
Montgomery by bus, he flew with them on the Freedom plane from Birmingham to
And both he and the other administration officials thought that was the end of
it. What they didn't realize is that there was a band of student activists, the
Nashville movement students, followers of Reverend Jim Lawson, who decided the
Freedom Ride could not end this way. They could not allow the CORE riders to be
chased out of Alabama to flee by plane and it was a disappointing end for the
original Freedom Rides.
So the student activists in Nashville and other movement centers in the South
said we can't let it end this way, so they organized another set of Freedom
Rides, which was a terrible, terrible turn of events for the Kennedys. Said, oh
my God, the crisis is reheating. Now we've got all these students threatening
to come into Birmingham. So that's how it restarts and it just won't go away.
By the end of May, Bobby Kennedy decides to turn to the Interstate Commerce
Commission, to beg them to pass a sweeping desegregation order. Now he knew
this would take weeks and even months and, in fact, he doesn't get his order
until September 22nd, 1961; it's not affective until November 1st.
And, of course, even though the civil rights activists, the Freedom Riders
appreciated what Kennedy was doing, they did not adhere to his call for a
cooling off period. They said we've been cooling off for a century. Weâre not
going to cool off anymore. We want freedom now. We want you to prove to us that
the ICC will render a sweeping desegregation order.
So thatâs why the Freedom Riders continue to board the buses and to continue to
have these Freedom Rides throughout the summer. And more and more people get
involved as they come into, mostly into Jackson, Mississippi, and ultimately to
GROSS: Now one of the things you write in your book about the Freedom Riders is
how the media covered the riders and what impact the media coverage had. And
something I found really surprising in your discussion of the media is what you
write about David Brinkley.
You write David Brinkley editorialized that the Freedom Riders are quote
âaccomplishing nothing whatsoever, and on the contrary are doing positive harm.
The results of these expeditions are not of benefit to anyone, white or Negro,
the North or the South, nor the U.S. in general. We think they should stop it.â
Where did he say this?
Mr. ARSENAULT: David Brinkley did a commentary on the NBC Nightly News. He, of
course, was from North Carolina. He considered himself to be a moderate
liberal, certainly someone who didn't normally endorse Jim Crow segregation.
But he felt that the Freedom Riders were being unreasonable. And he was not
alone in this.
There were a number of sort of mainstream, many mainstream journalists who were
supported by the public opinion polls. In general, more than two-thirds of
Americans, although they supported the ideal of desegregation in most cases,
rejected the tactics of the Freedom Riders. And Brinkley was speaking for them,
suggesting that there was something unpatriotic about what the Freedom Riders
were doing by not recognizing the damage that they were doing to America's
reputation, to its image around the world.
And he felt that they simply were naive, that they were provocateurs, that they
were largely young kids who didn't know what they were doing. And he was I
think furious at them, as many Americans were, because they would not allow
United States to go back to business as usual until the problems that they were
addressing were paid attention to.
GROSS: You found a lot of former Freedom Riders for your book, you know, as
part of your of your research. Is there anything, any kind of observation that
nearly every Freedom Rider you spoke to shared? Is there something that they
all had in common about the way they saw the Freedom Rides?
Mr. ARSENAULT: You know, I've often said that the Freedom Rides showed that
ordinary people could do extraordinary things. But after working 10 years on
this book, I really don't believe that these are or were ordinary people. You
know, there were 436 of them. They took amazing risks, displayed extraordinary
courage in the face of widespread censure.
I mean their own families, in many cases, telling them that they were doing
things that were making them ashamed, that they were making the mistakes of
their lives, that they were being unreasonable, that they were going down a
road that would hurt themselves and hurt the nation. And how they stayed the
course, how they kept their eyes on the prize is sometimes beyond me. I just
have, you know, I thought, you know, oftentimes historians, when they dig
deeper into a topic, they - when they see the real historical figures it can be
kind of disillusioning. That's not what happened here. The deeper I probed the
more respect I had for them and I just am in awe, really, not only of what they
did in 1961, but what many of them have continued to do. They really dedicated
their lives to social justice and it's just an incredibly empowering message it
seems to me.
GROSS: Among the people you interviewed who had been Freedom Riders, did any of
them have scars? And I don't mean emotional scars, I mean physical scars or
disabilities, from beatings that they had taken during the Freedom Rides. And
if so, how do they regard those scars or disabilities now?
Mr. ARSENAULT: There were a number of Freedom Riders who emerged with physical
scars. Most of them are dead now. Walter Bergman, who was a white Freedom Rider
from Michigan who was nearly beaten to death in the original Freedom Ride,
eventually filed a lawsuit where he won a nominal judgment against the FBI for
its complicity in the, for an FBI informer in the beating. He lived to be 99,
despite his - he was in a wheelchair most of the rest of the years of his life.
William Barbie, one of the most poignant of the Riders, who was the advance
scout into Montgomery, he was attacked at the bus station in Montgomery and
they stuck a jagged piece of metal into his temple. He never recovered and he
lived 20 more years but was never the same.
Ed Blankenheim, a Rider that I interviewed at great length, a white rider who
died last year in San Francisco, had been a carpenter and a part-time student
at the University of Arizona. The joke among Freedom Riders, even though he was
a secular Rider, was as Hank Thomas, one of the other Riders said, Jesus sent
us a carpenter from Arizona. Ed suffered a stroke later in his life. It was, I
think, in part a result of some of the things that he experienced in the rides.
And - but they wear them as badges of honor.
I can't tell you how many times the Freedom Riders told me, often with tears in
their eyes, that this was the moment of their lives. You know, at the time,
even though they were told that they were making a mistake, they now know that
this was - whatever else they did in their lives, whatever injuries they
suffered, that their lives made a difference. They didn't get everything they
wanted. Some of the ideals have not been realized, but they stood up for
justice at a critical moment in American history, when relatively few people
were willing to do so. And so, whatever injuries they suffered and they
certainly did suffer them, they wore them, I think, and continue to wear them
as a badge of honor.
GROSS: Raymond Arsenault, thank you so much for talking with us.
Mr. ARSENAULT: Oh, it's been my pressure.
DAVIES: Raymond Arsenault, speaking with Terry Gross in 2006. He's the John
Hope Franklin professor of Southern History at the University of South Florida
and author of the book "Freedom Riders."
Coming up, Ed Ward reviews a collection of Roy Orbison's singles from the early
This is FRESH AIR.
*** TRANSCRIPTION COMPANY BOUNDARY ***
Roy Orbison: A 'Monument' To A Pop Legend
(Soundbite of music)
DAVE DAVIES, host:
Roy Orbison was, in many ways, the man he sang about in his songs: alone.
Certainly, he didn't imitate anyone or write any trends. Although he started
out as a rockabilly performer on Sun Records, he didn't really find his
identity until he signed with the small Nashville label, Monument, in 1959.
There he cut 17 singles that put him and Monument on the map.
Hereâs rock historian Ed Ward.
(Soundbite of song, "With The Bug")
Mr. ROY ORBISON (Singer-songwriter, musician): (Singing) Well down through the
ages, woman's had a time. Tryin' to get her man to walk the chalk line. To keep
him on a string with a kiss and a hug. But there's never been a man who wasn't
bitten by the bug.
Yeah rockin' and rollin' with the bug. Rollin' and strollin' with the bug.
Itchin' and twitchin' singin' and swingin.' Yeah with the bug.
Well Delilah loved Sammy, but he wouldnât stay home..
ED WARD: When Fred Foster signed Roy Orbison in 1959, his label, Monument, had
already had a smash hit with Billy Grammer's "Gotta Travel On." At first, it
seemed he wasn't sure what to do with Orbison and tried a rock 'n' roll
novelty, "With the Bug," which flopped, not least because the backup band - the
cream of Nashville sidemen, including Hank "Sugarfoot" Garland on guitar, Floyd
Cramer on piano and Buddy Harmon on drums - sounds so uncomfortable.
Nashville, though, was changing, and rock 'n' roll wasn't part of the plan. Pop
(Soundbite of song, "Uptown")
Mr. ORBISON: (Singing) Uptown. Uptown. Uptown in penthouse number three.
Uptown, there lives a doll just made for me. Sheâs the finest thing that youâve
ever seen, Oh ho ha. oh ho ha. Oh ho ha.
WARD: Orbison had written his own material so far, and in Nashville, he took on
partners; including Joe Melson, a friend from Texas. "Uptown" was their first
collaboration, but it was their next one which established Orbison's career.
(Soundbite of song, "Only the Lonely")
Mr. ORBISON: (Singing) Dum-dum-dum-dumdy-doo-wah. Ooh-yay-yay-yay-yeah. Oh-oh-
oh-oh-wah. I'm Only the lonely. Only the lonely.
Only the lonely. Dum-dum-dum-dumdy-doo-wah. Know the way I feel tonight. Ooh-
yay-yay-yay-yeah. Only the lonely. Dum-dum-dum-dumdy-doo-wah. Know this feelin'
ain't right. Dum-dum-dum-dumdy-doo-wah.
There goes my baby. There goes my heart. They're gone forever. So far apart.
But only the lonely...
WARD: He also joined The Anita Kerr Singers for the dum dum dum dooby-doo-wah.
Orbison began to explore what his voice could do. It wasn't very powerful yet,
and for the recording he stood behind an improvised isolation booth made from
the musicians' coats. The stark, miserable lyric hit home with teenagers, and
shot to number two on the pop charts. An album, "Lonely and Blue," was quickly
recorded, and legend has it that when Fred Foster saw the cover, showing
Orbison leaning his head on his arms while seated in the front seat of a car,
he was shocked at how close together the singer's eyes were. Get some dark
glasses on him, he said. An image was born, although Orbison claimed it was due
to a mistake in choosing glasses to wear onstage one night.
It was a time of extreme teen pop, with songs of death and alienation cloaked
in strings and backup vocals. Roy Orbison led the way.
(Soundbite of song, "Running Scared")
Mr. ORBISON: (Singing) Just runnin' scared, each place we go. So afraid that he
might show. Yeah, runnin' scared, what would I do.
WARD: "Running Scared" was one of the most radical pop records yet: Orbison's
voice changed register over the bolero rhythm, but there was no chorus, and all
the release comes at the end. It was his first number one record. And, as if to
tempt fate, he followed this with another extreme performance.
(Soundbite of song, "Crying")
Mr. ORBISON: (Singing) I was all right for a while. I could smile for a while.
But I saw you last night you held my hand so tight. As you stopped to say
hello. Oh, you wished me well, you couldn't tell that I've been crying over
you, crying over you. And you said, so long, left me standing all alone. Alone
and crying, crying...
WARD: "Crying" winds up in the stratosphere, with Orbison's falsetto getting a
workout. It was something he was beginning to use a lot, as on this an odd bit
(Soundbite of song, "Leah")
Mr. ORBISON: (Singing) Le-Leah, Leah. Le-Leah, Leah. Here I go, from the hut to
the boat, to the sea, for Leah.
WARD: "Leah" was a hit, and, since he was also popular in England, he was
offered a tour there in 1963, after headliner Duane Eddy dropped out. By the
time he got there, the opening band, The Beatles, were ending the shows.
What's a Beatle, anyway? was Orbison's reaction. John Lennon, who overheard
him, tapped him on the shoulder and said, I am. But he soon found out that
"Please Please Me," their current hit, was partially intended as an homage to
And, unlike what happened to many pop performers, The Beatles didn't threaten
Orbison's hold on the charts. In the height of Beatlemania and the British
Invasion, he had time for one more number one record, one of his greatest
(Soundbite of song, "Oh, Pretty Woman")
Mr. ORBISON: (Singing) Pretty woman, walking down the street. Pretty woman, the
kind I like to meet. Pretty woman. I don't believe you, you're not the truth.
No one could look as good as you. Mercy.
WARD: Astonishingly, not long after this triumph, Orbison left Monument for MGM
Records, where his career would eventually wither, albeit not forever. When he
died in 1988, he had two albums sitting near the top of the charts.
DAVIES: Ed Ward reviewed "Roy Orbison: The Monument Singles Collection on
For Terry Gross, I'm Dave Davies.
(Soundbite of music)
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