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Life and Idealism: 'The Last of Her Kind'

The latest novel from Sigrid Nunez, The Last of Her Kind, tracks a woman's life from her college days in the late 1960s to the present. As she describes her own life, the narrator, Georgette, also details the legacy of fierce idealism — and violence.

01:12

Other segments from the episode on January 12, 2006

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, January 12, 2006: Interview with James Farmer; Interview with Raymond Arsenault; Review of Sigrid Nunez's novel, "The last of her kind."

Transcript

DATE January 12, 2006 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
NETWORK NPR
PROGRAM Fresh Air

Filler: By policy of WHYY, this information is restricted and has
been omitted from this transcript

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Interview: Raymond Arsenault on his new book, "Freedom Riders:
1961 and the Struggle for Racial Justice"
TERRY GROSS, host:

My guest, Raymond Arsenault, is the author of the new book, "Freedom Riders:
1961 and the Struggle for Racial Justice." The book is part of the Oxford
University Press series Pivotal Moments in American History. Arsenault is a
professor of Southern history at the University of South Florida.

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 Southern 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 marshalled 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 and several other activists
decided to take Gandhian philosophy literally and to fill the jails as best
they could. And then there was 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 mood 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, to--particularly young people. They had
all kinds of ways of manipulating and threatening and in many cases actually
physically harming people in, you know, Southern jails and particularly
Southern prisons, and Parchman being the most notorious, but even the county
jails and the city jails. They weren't accustomed to people trying to stay
inside the bars. And so it defied logic for them and they didn't know quite
how to deal with it and never, I think, really figured out a way to counter
the tactics of these pesky kids and their allies.

GROSS: So when the Freedom Riders refused to post bail, how did they get out
of prison?

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
toward the Freedom Rides; that there was a feeling that by going into prison
on a mass level was subjecting the civil rights movement to a lot of pressure,
making it more vulnerable; that the Freedom Rides was an enormous gamble; that
if all this money was poured into it and there were no positive results, then
this 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.

GROSS: My guest is Raymond Arsenault, author of the new book "Freedom Riders:
1961 and the Struggle for Racial Justice." We'll talk more after a break.

This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: My guest is Raymond Arsenault. He's a historian who's the author of
the new book, "Freedom Riders: 1961 and the Struggle for Racial Justice."

The Freedom Riders were challenging segregation on interstate bus rides. Now
buses had long been the center of protests 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 the public housing? 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 trains
and streetcars were a daily irritant for blacks, so it was a natural place
where people would file lawsuits or where they would try to test the limits of
Jim Crow culture. And this was particularly true in the 1940s, when people
begin to have sort of individual freedom rides. They didn't use that term,
but there were a number of people who challenged the Jim Crow conventions.
Jackie Robinson, 1944, refused to move to the back of the bus near Ft. Hood
in Texas and he was court-martialed. He was eventually exonerated, but that
was just one example of an African-American who was not willing to put up with
this.

GROSS: Now the Freedom Riders were specifically testing new law. What law
were they testing?

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 1944. 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 an 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
of 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. Bayard Rustin, 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 NAACP was lukewarm. The press carried it, but it really
didn't effect a revolution. But it set a model for civil rights non-violent
direct action.

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 frontier. 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
segregated?

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 in a--at a lunch counter at 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 rest rooms, in restaurants,
in 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.

GROSS: Raymond Arsenault is the author of the new book, "Freedom Riders:
1961 and the Struggle for Racial Justice." He'll be back in the second half
of the show.

I'm Terry Gross and this is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of unidentified song)

Unidentified Woman: (Singing) Which side are you on, boy? Which are side are
you on? No matter, Lordy.

Unidentified Woman and Group of People: (Singing) Which side are you on, boy?
Which side are you on? No matter, Lordy. Which side are you on, boy? Which
side are you? No matter, Lordy. Which side are you on, boy? Which side are
you on?

Unidentified Woman: (Singing) Oh, brothers, can you hear me? Oh, tell me if
you can. Will you be an Uncle Tom, or will you be a man? No matter, Lordy.

Unidentified Woman and Group of People: (Singing) Which side are you on, boy?
Which side are you on? No matter, Lordy. Which side are you on, boy? Which
side are you?

Unidentified Woman: (Singing) Have you heard about the paddy wagon that a
bigger man likes to drive? If you stand up for your rights, he'll take you
for a ride. No matter, Lordy.

Unidentified Woman and Group of People: (Singing) Which side are you on, boy?
Which side are you on? No matter, Lordy. Which side are you on, boy? Which
side are you?

Unidentified Woman: (Singing) They're saying, `Daughter, ...(unintelligible)
have we met. You'll either be a freedom fighter or ...(unintelligible).' No
matter, Lordy.

Unidentified Woman and Group of People: (Singing) Which side are you on, boy?
Which side are you on? No matter, Lordy. Which side are you on, boy? Which
side are you?

Unidentified Woman: (Singing) Oh, tell me where your ...(unintelligible)
leads. Where is your heart? We are all children of the Almighty God. No
matter, Lordy.

Unidentified Woman and Group of People: (Singing) Which side are you on, boy?
Which side are you on? No matter, Lordy. Which side are you on, boy? Which
you on?

(Announcements)

(Soundbite of unidentified song)

Unidentified Man: (Singing) Well, have you been to the jails?

Chorus: (Singing) Send me, Lord.

Unidentified Man: (Singing) Well, have you been to the jails?

GROSS: Coming up, the Kennedy administration, the FBI and the Freedom Riders.
We continue our interview with Raymond Arsenault. And book critic Maureen
Corrigan reviews "The Last of her Kind," a novel about the idealism of the
late '60s.

(Soundbite of unidentified song)

Unidentified Man and Chorus: (Singing) Send me...

Chorus: (Singing) ...Lord.

Unidentified Man: (Singing) Well, let me give you 30 days.

Unidentified Man and Chorus: (Singing) Send me, Lord. Send me, send me, send
me, Lord.

Unidentified Man: (Singing) Well, did you serve your time?

Chorus: (Singing) Send me, Lord.

Unidentified Man: (Singing) Well, did you serve your time?

Unidentified Man and Chorus: (Singing) Send me...

Chorus: (Singing: ...Lord.

Unidentified Man: (Singing) Well, did you serve your time?

Unidentified Man and Chorus: (Singing) Send me, Lord. Send me, send me, send
me, Lord.

Unidentified Man: (Singing) Well, will you go back again?

Unidentified Man and Chorus: (Singing) Send me, Lord.

Unidentified Man: (Singing) Well, will you go back again?

Unidentified Man and Chorus: (Singing) Send me...

Chorus: (Singing) ...Lord.

Unidentified Man: (Singing) Oh, will you go back again?

Unidentified Man and Chorus: (Singing) Send me, Lord. Send me, send me, send
me, Lord.

Unidentified Man: (Singing) Oh, will you fight for freedom?

Unidentified Man and Chorus: (Singing) Send me, Lord.

Unidentified Man: (Singing) Oh, will you fight for freedom?

Unidentified Man and Chorus: (Singing) Send me...

Chorus: (Singing) ...Lord.

Unidentified Man: (Singing) Oh, will you fight for freedom?

Unidentified Man and Chorus: (Singing) Send me, Lord. Send me, send me, send
me, Lord.

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with Raymond Arsenault,
author of the new book "Freedom Riders: 1961 and the Struggle for Racial
Justice." It's about the integrated group of civil rights activists who rode
through the South on buses to insist on compliance with the law that
desegregated interstate transportation. The Freedom Riders were pledged to
non-violence, and they remained non-violent in the face of brutal attacks
against them.

So the initial group of Freedom Riders that CORE organized was basically
hand-picked. I mean, you almost have to audition to be part of it. Why were
they so carefully selected?

Prof. ARSENAULT: CORE had a philosophy of using a vanguard of carefully
trained, disciplined, non-violent 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 non-violence. They were
terrified that if undisciplined activists were provoked, it would turn into
violence and 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 parents' 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 an extremely important part of the strategy of the original Freedom Ride.

GROSS: And did that careful selection continue through the history of the
Freedom Riders?

Prof. 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 some of the 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
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 no
provocateurs, that there weren't FBI informers or Klan informers or people who
were not working in the best interests of the Freedom Riders. 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 non-violent 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?

Prof. ARSENAULT: Well, of course, the most famous violent acts were the
bombing of a bus in Anniston, Alabama, where the Freedom Riders, 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" Conner, and the police department and several Klaverns of the
Ku Klux Klan, and there was a Klan mob that 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 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 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 segregationist 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 several 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?

Prof. ARSENAULT: One of the important subthemes of the Freedom Rides is the
role of the FBI. J. Edgar Hoover had no sympathy for civil rights activists.
He was an avowed segregationist, a supporter of the status quo. And the sent
that message down to the FBI, and basically the FBI in the Southern scene,
they were note-takers. They observed. They often knew what was about to
happen. And of course, they had advance 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 Hoover, even though Hoover
had--continued to have enormous power, and he and Kennedy had an interesting
back-and-forth relationship. This was a major turning point in the sense that
the FBI could not be trusted.

But ironically, many white Southerners thought the FBI was part of the federal
government and in many times was in cahoots with the civil rights activists.
And General John Patterson in Alabama actually threatened to arrest any FBI
agent who interfered on behalf of the Freedom Riders.

GROSS: My guest is Raymond Arsenault, author of the new book "Freedom Riders:
1961 and the Struggle for Racial Justice." We'll talk more after a break.

This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: My guest is historian Raymond Arsenault. He's the author of the new
book "Freedom Riders: 1961 and the Struggle for Racial Justice."

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 administration's take on the
Freedom Rides and how they initially handled it?

Prof. 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. 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 scene?

And of course, what all this had to do with was the changed situation with
respect to the decolonization of the Third World. Suddenly people of color
had important part to play in the balance of power in the world, and the civil
rights leaders, particularly those involved in 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?

Prof. ARSENAULT: The Kennedy administration--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--the original Freedom Ride 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
New Orleans. 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
national movement students, followers of the 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 Ride. 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 that, `Oh, my God, the crisis is reheating.
Now we've got all these students threatening to come into Birmingham.' And 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, and it's not effective 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. We're
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 that's why those 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 into Parchman prison.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Raymond Arsenault; he's the
author of the new book "Freedom Riders: 1961 and the Struggle for Racial
Justice."

Now one of the things you write about 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, "accomplishing nothing whatsoever and, on the
contrary, are doing positive harm. The result of these expeditions are not of
benefit to anyone, white or Negro, the North or the South, nor the US in
general. We think they should stop it." Where did he say this?

Prof. ARSENAULT: David Brinkley did a commentary on the NBC "Nightly News."
He, of course, was from North Carolina and 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 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 the 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 and as part of
your research. Is there anything, any kind of observation that nearly every
Freedom Rider you spoke to shared? Is it something that they all had in
common about the way they saw the Freedom Rides?

Prof. 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, and 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 mistake 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--I thought--you know, oftentimes historians,
when they dig deeper into a topic, 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. They didn't--you know, they're
flesh-and-blood human beings. They were capable of missteps and making
mistakes, and I don't mean to suggest that--make them into cartoon characters
or--you know, but they were--they really are some of the most amazing
historical figures that I've ever encountered.

GROSS: Among the people who 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?

Prof. 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 on 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.
But he lived to be 99 despite his--he was in a wheelchair most of the rest of
the years of his life.

William Barbee, 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 in the--among Freedom Riders, even
though he was a secular Rider, as Hank Thomas, one of the other Riders, said,
`Jesus sent us a carpenter from Arizona.' Ed suffered a stroke later in his
life; I think was 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 being
told 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.

Prof. ARSENAULT: Oh, it's been my pleasure.

GROSS: Raymond Arsenault is the author of the new book "Freedom Riders."
He's a professor of Southern history at the University of South Florida. You
can find an excerpt of his book and photos on our Web site, freshair.npr.org.

Here's a 1963 recording of the CORE Freedom Singers doing "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 and then demands his rights from Mississippi Governor Ross Barnett.

(Soundbite of "Get Your Rights, Jack")

CORE FREEDOM SINGERS: (Singing) Which side are you on, boy? Which side are
you on? Oh, my Lordy, which side are you on? (Technical difficulties) Get
your rights, Jack, and don't be a Tom no more, no more, no more, no more. Get
your rights, Jack, and don't be a Tom no more. Get your rights, Jack, and
don't be a Tom no more, no more, no more, no more. Get your rights, Jack, and
don't be a Tom no more. Oh, oh, don't you treat me this way. I'll take my
Freedom Ride someday. Oh, no, you won't, 'cause it's understood you're not a
Tom and you're just no good. Well, I guess if you say so, I have to get my
ticket and go. That's right. Get your rights, Jack, and don't be a Tom no
more, no more, no more, no more. Get your rights, Jack, and don't be a Tom no
more. Oh, Ross, oh, Ross, don't treat me this way, 'cause I'll get my civil
rights someday. Oh, no, you won't, 'cause it's understood your skin is black
and you're just no good. Well, I guess if you say so, I have to take it to
the courts. That's right. Get your rights, Jack, and don't be a Tom no more,
no more, no more, no more. Get your rights, Jack, and don't be a Tom no more.
What'd you say? Get your rights, Jack, and don't be a Tom no more, no more,
no more, no more. Get your rights, Jack, and don't be a Tom no more.

GROSS: Coming up, Maureen Corrigan reviews the new novel "The Last of Her
Kind," which is about the idealism of the late '60s. This is FRESH AIR.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Review: Sigrid Nunez's novel, "The Last of Her Kind"
TERRY GROSS, host:

Novelist Sigrid Nunez has garnered critical acclaim and many awards for her
four previous novels, including a Whiting Writers prize and two awards from
the American Academy of Arts and Letters. Her debut novel, "A Feather on the
Breath of God," was a finalist for the 1995 PEN/Hemingway Award. Her new
novel, "The Last of Her Kind," is a big story about the idealism of the 1960s
and its long-term effects on two young women. Book critic Maureen Corrigan
has a review.

MAUREEN CORRIGAN reporting:

The more distant we get from the 1960s chronologically and politically, the
more liberated novelists seem to feel about trying to capture that era in
their fiction. '60s literary standouts in recent years include Philip Roth's
sweeping "American Pastorale" as well as novels fixated on the radical fringe,
like Neil Gordon's "The Company You Keep" about the Weather Underground and
Susan Choi's "American Woman" and Christopher Sorrentino's "Trance," both
inspired by the Patty Hearst case.

This new year in literature kicks off with yet another '60s salute that also
faintly invokes the figure of Patty Hearst. Sigrid Nunez's just-published
book is called "The Last of Her Kind," but judging from literature's ongoing
'60s obsession, as a novel it certainly won't be the last of its kind.
Nunez's tale distinguished itself from its tie-dyed cohorts by being at once
more savvy about the underexplored subject of class and yet more melodramatic
in its story line.

It opens in 1968 at Barnard College, where our two principal characters meet
as roommates. Georgette George is a scholarship student who hails from
Nowheresville, upstate New York. She's paired with a WASP roommate, Ann
Drayton, who romanticizes the wretched of the earth and is disappointed about
sharing space with Georgette, whose white underclass background isn't darkly
exotic or downtrodden enough for her.

Here's how Georgette remembers their early days together: `We had been living
together for about a week when my roommate told me she had asked specifically
to be paired with a girl from a world as different as possible from her own.
She did not want a roommate from the same privileged world in which she had
been raised, she said. She did not want a roommate who had been raised as she
had been. But this was my thought, not hers, to believe you could make this
kind of special request and expect it would be granted. I had left the space
under "comments" on my housing form blank. I had no comment to write unless
it was to say "Thank you, thank you for accepting me."'

That opening is pitch-perfect; it doesn't preach or overstate the obvious.
Ditto for Georgette's observations about Vietnam and what an all-consuming
issue it was on the Barnard Columbia campus. `But no one else I knew,'
recalls Georgette, `had a brother who was actually there.' Throughout "The
Last of Her Kind," whenever Georgette retrospectively comments like this on
the class myopia of the '60s, the novel's IQ points soar.

Its turbulent Technicolor story line, however, dumbs down the book, and
Nunez's technique of summoning up multiple narrators seems more distracting
than enlightening. The roommates eventually drop out of college, Georgette to
nab a job at a women's magazine, Anne to worship the Black Panthers and try to
join the revolution. Georgette's drugged-out sister runs away from home. And
courtesy of all three of these young women, we readers are carried along on a
`you are there' magical history tour of communes, crash pads, Woodstock,
Haight-Ashbury and Altamont. Mick Jagger even has an awkward walk-on line or
two.

The cultural party has already exhausted itself by the time Anne is jailed in
1976 for the murder of a policeman during a tussle in which her black lover is
killed. In a late plot twist that's surprisingly affecting, Georgette finds
the big love of her life, a love who draws her more deeply into the
psychological mystery of her old roommate Anne.

All the while I was reading "The Last of Her Kind," I kept experiencing
psychedelic flashbacks to Marge Piercy and those wonderful politically
inflected '60s potboilers she used to write, like "Vida" and "Small Changes."
Nunez's story has that same kind of earnestly sensational feel to it. For a
literary novel, the last of her kind is somewhat clumsy in its language and
execution, but like those yippies who tried to end the Vietnam War in 1967 by
levitating the Pentagon into outer space, "The Last of Her Kind" is endearing
in its ambition and goofy energy.

GROSS: Critic Maureen Corrigan.

I'm Terry Gross.
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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