For decades, the Freedom Riders were treated as footnote in the history of the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s.
That changed in 2006 when Dr. Ray Arsenault, a history professor at the University of South Florida campus in St. Petersburg, published a book titled “Freedom Riders: 1961 and the Struggle for Racial Justice.”
“It was the first book about the Freedom Riders,” Arsenault said. “Before my book, the Freedom Riders had not been considered by most scholars to be a turning point.”
In 2011, Arsenault’s book served as the basis for an “American Experience” documentary on PBS.
Arsenault will be among the panelists in a discussion of the Freedom Riders on Thursday at New College. One of the original Freedom Riders also will be on the panel.
Included in the focus of the discussion will be the relevance of the Freedom Riders today and how the the movement’s legacy deserves more attention.
“There’s a whole generation that doesn’t know who they were,” said Circuit Court Judge Charles Williams, who will moderate the panel discussion.
Still, he said, echoes of the Freedom Riders’ protests, and the reaction against them, can be heard in protests today in Charlottesville, Va., and Gainesville, and around Civil War monuments.
The Freedom Riders were an ad hoc group of 426 people, both black and white, and mostly young, who rode buses from the northern United States into the Deep South to challenge “Jim Crow” laws over about six months in 1961. They broke no laws themselves, but they were beaten and jailed, and on more than one occasion white supremacists attempted to murder groups of them.
Arsenault interviewed more than 200 Freedom Riders for his book. Among them is Ellen Ziskind, a Freedom Rider who was imprisoned in Mississippi State Penitentiary for six weeks in 1961. She will be be part of the panel, along with Arsenault and Michael Jeffries, associate professor of American Studies at Wellesley College in Massachusetts.
Much like some of the protestors of today, including the NFL players who kneel instead of stand during the national anthem, the Freedom Riders were decried by many people as unpatriotic, Williams said. And they protested against many of the same things that American protestors today object to, including white supremacists and racially motivated violence.
The panel discussion itself is free, but seating is limited.