B. Lüthi: The Freedom Riders Across Borders

The Freedom Riders Across Borders. Contentious Mobilities

Lüthi, Barbara
Changing Mobilities
Abingdon 2022: Routledge
Anzahl Seiten
170 S.
£ 120.00
Rezensiert für H-Soz-Kult von
Mario Peters, German Historical Institute, Washington

Mobility and the international circulation of people, goods, information, and ideas have long been at the core of transnational and global history writing. Numerous studies have celebrated past border-crossings and far-reaching transnational relations in a globalizing world. In recent years, however, the reassessment of the twentieth and early twenty-first centuries as a time of all-encompassing acceleration and unrestrained mobility has provoked skepticism. Inspired by the Mobilities Turn, historians have joined sociologists, geographers, and scholars from other disciplines in distinguishing different kinds of mobility (multiple mobilities) and examining why different groups have not had equal access to mobility (uneven mobilities).1 Barbara Lüthi joins this trend. In her book The Freedom Riders Across Borders. Contentious Mobilities she explores how the Freedom Rides by civil rights activists who protested the segregation of public transportation in the American South in 1961 influenced similar struggles in other parts of the world in the following decades, more exactly, in Australia in 1965 and in Palestine in 2011. What the social movements in these far apart places have in common is that they all battled against racial discrimination and for the freedom of movement for groups – African Americans, Aboriginal Australians, and Palestinians – whose mobility was extremely limited by multiple processes of impediment, deceleration, and exclusion. Further, as Lüthi argues, these protests in different times and world regions were connected because in all three cases buses played a crucial role in the fight for freedom of movement.

Accordingly, Lüthi uses a transnational and, more implicitly, a comparative approach. The book is structured into an introduction, three chapters on the case studies that are organized chronologically and thematically, and a short concluding chapter that identifies similarities and differences. The author’s engagement with theory from the interdisciplinary field of mobility studies is laudable and, in such detail, still uncommon among historians. The density of theoretical considerations, however, might make the introduction less accessible for a broader public. In terms of sources, Lüthi notes that the material available for the three case studies is highly unequal (p. 15). The chapters on the Freedom Rides in the United States and Australia in the 1960s are based on published interviews, memoirs, and other ego-documents. The chapter on the more recent protests in Palestine is based on the analysis of online postings and videos. Presentation of the protests in the media is a central topic in all three chapters; accordingly, Lüthi primarily analyzes newspaper reports and images. She convincingly argues why the United States, Australia, and Palestine are adequate case studies to explore the transnational dimension of the Freedom Rides. However, a more detailed discussion of how the unequal availability of sources impacted the research process would have been helpful. Also, we are left to wonder why the author herself conducted only one interview.

In chapter one, Lüthi discusses the Freedom Rides in the American South in 1961, situating them in the historical context of racial restrictions on free movement for African Americans and focusing on the representations, mediations, and embodied practices of mobility. While the idea of mobility as a constituent of American life applied almost exclusively to white Americans, for African Americans the ‘open road’ had long been connected to fear and violence. Lüthi shows that in the early 1960s Jim Crow travel laws remained in force throughout the South, although mobility-related court decisions tended toward desegregation at that time. This observation does not really come as a surprise; neither does the conclusion that Black and international newspapers were more sympathetic toward the Riders than white and local newspapers. Much of this chapter is based on scholarly publications on mobility and race in the United States. Lüthi’s analysis of photographs and protest songs, however, is innovative and coherent: media representations and embodied practices of mobility such as singing while riding the bus were important for the Riders’ transnational impact and the translation of their strategies to other settings which the author explores in the following chapters.

In chapter two, Lüthi focuses on the Freedom Rides in Australia in 1965, especially in Moree, a country town in New South Wales, then known as the center of Australian apartheid. She gives a historical overview of racial discrimination against Aboriginal Australians, focusing on how settler colonial political rationality had reordered their mobility since the late eighteenth century. Different from the American Riders, Australian activists in the 1960s were mostly white university students. Lüthi does a good job showing how the activists were inspired by movements overseas, especially the writings of Martin Luther King and the American Freedom Riders’ use of the media to attract attention. She also shows that the perception of the transnational dimension mattered: Australian activists acknowledged American influence but were also eager to show that they were not simply imitating the foreign example. Lüthi’s discussion of racialized microgeographies in Moree is among the strongest parts of the book. She shows how activists took protest to “the streets” and how contestations of racial hierarchies focused on – and happened in – spaces of intimacy such as public pools, theaters, schools, and thermal baths that Aboriginal people were not allowed to enter.

The third chapter discusses the Freedom Ride by six young Palestinian activists who, on November 15, 2011, boarded a bus reserved for Israeli settlers to reach East Jerusalem. They protested not only the restrictions on free movement that had been imposed under occupation since 1967 but also the collaboration of French and Israeli bus companies with the checkpoint regime. In the previous chapter on Australia, Lüthi discusses the role of the bus in the protests very briefly; here this important aspect gets more attention. Back in 1961 in the United States, the bus had been a site of mobile power and contestation, it had been used to challenge white supremacy. Like their American forerunners, the Palestinian Freedom Riders used the bus to draw attention to segregated transportation as one central pillar in the construction of racial hierarchy. They also used the vehicle’s visual power to make their cause legible for an international audience. Their activism and the use of Facebook, YouTube, and other online platforms triggered solidarity abroad and reinforced narratives of a history of oppression shared by Palestinians, African Americans, and minorities in other places.

Barbara Lüthi has written a book that is largely based on research literature and published sources. The Freedom Riders Across Borders makes an important contribution to the study of uneven mobilities and transportation activism by putting the transnational dimension of the Freedom Rides front and center. The best part of the book is Lüthi’s vivid description of the harsh reality of restricted movement in country towns like Moree. The focus on embodied practices of mobility is also innovative. Other aspects such as the leading role of women in the 1961 Freedom Rides would have deserved more attention. Here, more archival research and interviews would have contributed to the depth of the study.

1 Mimi Sheller / John Urry, The new mobilities paradigm, in: Environment and Planning A 38 (2006), pp. 212–214; Mimi Sheller, Mobility Justice. The Politics of Movement in an Age of Extremes, London 2018. For a reflection from the perspective of historical science, see Valeska Huber, Multiple Mobilities. Über den Umgang mit verschiedenen Mobilitätsformen um 1900, in: Geschichte und Gesellschaft 36 (2010), pp. 317–341.