'Freedom Riders' film to premiere May 16

Brandeis alumnus appeared on The Oprah Show to discuss his history of the 1961 protests

Ray Arsenault M.A. ’74, Ph.D. ’81

It doesn’t get much better than this for a historian: a PBS documentary based on his scholarship set to premiere, a recent appearance on “The Oprah Show” to discuss his work, and the top-selling American history book on amazon.com.

For Ray Arsenault M.A. ’74, Ph.D. ’81 the attention is flattering, but even more gratifying is watching the subjects of his scholarship, the 1961 Freedom Rides, finally take their rightful historical place as central events of the U.S. civil rights movement.

“It’s pretty extraordinary,” Arsenault said this week from Georgia while leading 40 college students and original Freedom Riders as they retraced the 1961 journey from Washington, D.C., to New Orleans. “I never expected this to be such a pop culture phenomenon. It has really been wonderful for the story to get out to a wider audience.

“It’s a remarkably compelling story that, for whatever reason, was ignored for many years and not treated as a pivotal moment in American history,” said Arsenault, who is the John Hope Franklin Professor of Southern History at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg. “People are now discovering it.”

The much-anticipated documentary “Freedom Riders,” which tells the story of a group of civil rights activists who 50 years ago challenged segregation in the American South, premieres at 9 p.m. EDT on Monday, May 16. The two-hour movie, part of the highly regarded “American Experience” series on PBS, is directed by award-winning filmmaker Stanley Nelson and based on Arsenault's 2006 book, “Freedom Riders: 1961 and the Struggle for Racial Justice.”

The buzz about the film began when it received rave reviews at the 2010 Sundance Film Festival, and anticipation grew after Arsenault appeared with nearly 175 of the Freedom Riders on Oprah Winfrey’s TV show May 4. Arsenault has been interviewed by dozens of media outlets, including the Washington Post, USA Today, the Associated Press, and the Atlanta Journal Constitution. PBS “is expecting several million viewers for the premiere, particularly after ‘Oprah,’ and they think it will be one of the largest ‘American Experience’ audiences ever,” Arsenault said. “It is a remarkable film.”

In the mid-1990s, David Hackett Fischer, the Earl Warren Professor of History at Brandeis, and Princeton historian James McPherson approached Arsenault about contributing a book to their series, “Pivotal Moments in American History.”

“I knew immediately that I wanted to write about the Freedom Rides,” Arsenault recalled. “David sensed it was a perfect choice, an example of when small groups of people were able to alter the course of history through courage, conviction and commitment.”
The product of 10 years of research and writing, “Freedom Riders: 1961 and the Struggle for Racial Justice” was quickly hailed as the authoritative book on the subject. The 704-page text brought to life the stories of the participants.

“I got to know the Freedom Riders and tried to knit together their stories in a narrative,” Arsenault said. “I was not sure I would ever finish it or do the story justice.”

A native New Englander who grew up in small cities and towns in the South, Arsenault frequently felt like an outsider as a child.

“I had to negotiate my way through,” he said. “I felt out of place in the South and developed a curiosity about race and regional culture.”

As a Princeton undergraduate, Arsenault fortuitously landed a work-study position as a research assistant to history professor Sheldon Hackney after losing his job as a dining hall busboy for dropping eight trays full of plastic cups. Hackney, an expert on the South and civil rights, was friends with Montgomery bus boycott activist Rosa Parks.

“At the age of 19, I became his research assistant and was thrown into a world of activists,” Arsenault said. “It gave me an opportunity to meet people and explore topics that few graduate students even got to do.”

Much to the horror of his Boston Brahmin grandmother, the Cape Cod native chose Brandeis over Harvard for his graduate work. The attraction was the fledgling Irving and Rose Crown School of American Civilization, which offered generous fellowships but also boasted of a faculty that included giants in the field such as Marvin Meyers, John Demos, Morton Keller and Fischer.

While studying at Brandeis, Arsenault grew close to fellow student Steve Whitfield, Ph.D. '72, who now is the Max Richter Professor of American Civilization here, and the two professors remain close friends.

Arsenault has stayed connected to Brandeis over the years. He visited campus in 2009 to discuss his latest book, "The Sound of Freedom: Marian Anderson, the Lincoln Memorial, and the Concert That Awakened America," and on May 1 held an exclusive screening of "Freedom Riders" in Chicago with members of the Crown family and area alumni.

“Brandeis was a wonderful place with small classes and an amazing faculty,” Arsenault recalls. “The professors treated you more like a colleague than a student. Brandeis was years ahead of other graduate programs. I owe so much to Brandeis and the Crowns for getting my career off to a good start.”

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