Thomas Sugrue

  • Freedom Riders: 1961 and the Struggle for Racial Justice by Raymond Arsenault
    Oxford, 690 pp, £19.99, March 2006, ISBN 0 19 513674 8

It is canonical in the American classroom, on television and in popular culture to celebrate the black civil rights movement as the triumph of American universalism, the vindication of the ‘American creed’ of egalitarianism, colour blindness and individual liberty against the forces of oppression that long held blacks in a subservient status. Americans remember the struggle for racial equality as a morality play, pitting nonviolence against racist violence, love against hatred. It is a Christian story of redemptive suffering and even martyrdom, as activists sacrificed their bodies to save the soul of America.

The classic narrative begins with the court battles and grassroots protests against Jim Crow. By the end of the 19th century, the Southern states had implemented a system of nearly complete racial separation in the public sphere. Blacks and whites attended segregated schools. On streetcars, buses and trains, ‘coloured’ travellers sat separately and were required to stand if a white person demanded a seat. Restrooms and drinking fountains were designated by race. Restaurants that catered to whites refused to serve African Americans, or relegated them to tables in the kitchen or out-of-doors. Those theatres that admitted non-white patrons confined them to the balconies (deprecatingly called ‘buzzards’ roosts’) or along the walls. In most parts of the South, blacks were denied the basic prerogatives of citizenship, including the franchise and jury service.

As the story is customarily told, the victory against Jim Crow began with the Supreme Court’s landmark 1954 ruling in Brown v. Board of Education that racially segregated schools were constitutionally impermissible. The grassroots movement for civil rights became visible in 1955, when blacks in Montgomery, Alabama boycotted the city’s public transport system after Rosa Parks defied Jim Crow laws by refusing to give up her seat to a white passenger. Leading the protests was Martin Luther King. In the aftermath of the Montgomery bus boycott, King established the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, using black churches as the base for organising protests. During the 1955-65 period, what historians call the ‘classic phase’ of the civil rights movement, King led a nonviolent crusade for racial equality that culminated in the passage of federal civil rights legislation in 1964 and the enactment of voting rights laws in 1965.

King’s life – the focus of a vast body of scholarly and journalistic works – serves as a metaphor for the entire civil rights movement. His career as orator and ‘prophet of nonviolence’, ending with his assassination in 1968, embodied the themes of suffering, martyrdom and redemption that continue to shape the American telling of the black freedom struggle. The uplifting story – Martin Luther King died for our sins – effaces the radical, even revolutionary politics of civil rights activists (including King himself), the contradictions at the movement’s heart, and the troubling persistence of racial inequality in modern America.

Raymond Arsenault’s compelling history of one of the most important battles of the struggle focuses on eight months in 1961 – a moment when Jim Crow seemed to be as entrenched as ever. In the five years following Montgomery, the civil rights movement accomplished little in the South. The call for black equality spurred massive white resistance to court-ordered school desegregation. Southern elected officials openly defied demands for integration. Even in ostensibly enlightened Southern cities like Atlanta and Greensboro, North Carolina, public officials adopted a tokenistic approach to integration, maintaining the racial status quo while giving an impression of change.

In spring 1961, a small band of activists, influenced by a distinctively American variant of Gandhianism, inflected by perfectionist Protestantism, decided to challenge one of the most visible symbols of racial inequality: segregated interstate transport. Led by the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), they were committed to undermining segregation as the first step towards creating a ‘beloved community’ of blacks and whites. Under a 1946 Supreme Court decision, Morgan v. Virginia, the racial separation of passengers on interstate buses and trains was illegal. Like many high court rulings that contravened social norms, Morgan was honoured in the breach. Fifteen years after the judgment, black travellers in the South were still confined to Jim Crow coaches and the rear seats of buses. They were cordoned off in separate, inferior waiting rooms in bus terminals and train stations.

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