PublicHistoryRoundtable The Freedom Rides in History and Film: A 50-Year Retrospective

AHA Session 95
Friday, January 7, 2011: 2:30 PM-4:30 PM
Room 206 (Hynes Convention Center)
Raymond Arsenault, University of South Florida St. Petersburg
Paul Taylor, senior editor, American Experience , Derek Catsam, University of Texas of the Permian Basin , Laurens Grant, producer, Freedom Riders , Bernard Lafayette, Emory University and John Seigenthaler, First Amendment Center at Vanderbilt University

Session Abstract

  The proposed panel will examine the Freedom Rides of 1961, a major milestone in the history of the modern American civil rights movement. Focusing on the challenge of accurately reconstructing and documenting a mass movement, the session will feature historians, documentary film makers, and former Freedom Riders and government officials involved in the production of the American Experience documentary Freedom Riders. Selected as one of 16 films for the January 2010 Sundance Film Festival American documentary competition, Freedom Riders will be aired nationally on PBS television in late January 2011, just prior to the 50th anniversary of the Freedom Rides. Partially funded by a million-dollar NEH "We the People" grant, the film is based on Raymond Arsenault’s prize-winning book, Freedom Riders: 1961 and the Struggle for Racial Justice, published in 2006 by Oxford University Press. All or part (depending on the length of the session) of the film could be shown prior to the panel discussion, which would draw upon the experiences and perspectives of individuals involved in the full range of activities required to turn a book into a full-length (1 hour and 53 minutes) documentary. Discussants will include Arsenault, who served as a senior consultant for the documentary and who appears throughout the film; Derek Catsam, author of Freedom’s Main Line, who also offers commentary at several points in the film; director Stanley Nelson; executive producer Laurens Grant; and two individuals featured in the film, former Freedom Rider Bernard Lafayette, and John Seigenthaler, a former special assistant to Attorney General Robert Kennedy. In addition to substantive discussion of the nature and meaning of the Freedom Rides, the session should afford a welcome opportunity to consider questions related to history and memory, the use of oral testimony, narrative construction, the value of documentary expression, and the process of popularizing and adapting an academic text. With the conference in Boston, the audience will undoubtedly include several members of the WGBH American Experience production staff, who could enrich the discussion with their insights on the challenges of creating historical documentaries such as Freedom Riders.

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