Dr. Ray Arsenault (right) attended President Obama's inauguration with Carol Ruth Silver, one of the Freedom Riders.

Witnessing history in Washington, D.C., with someone who made history

Ray Arsenault, Ph.D., the John Hope Franklin Professor of Southern History at USF St. Petersburg, attended the inauguration of President Obama on Monday with one of the Freedom Riders whose story he told in an award-winning book.

Carol Ruth Silver was a recent college graduate working at the United Nations when she joined the Freedom Riders movement to protest the segregation of interstate buses in the South and served 39 days in prison. She later graduated from law school, worked as a lawyer, ran for Congress and served on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors. She was the only Freedom Rider who managed to keep a diary during her time behind bars. She smuggled the diary, written on toilet paper, out of prison when she was released.

The diary will be published by the University Press of Mississippi later this year, with an introduction by Arsenault.

It was the first inauguration he ever attended. He and Silver were both there at the invitation of  House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. Not only was it an historic event, he was happy to share it with Silver and other veterans of the Civil Rights movement.

“It was an amazing, unforgettable experience,’’ Dr. Arsenault said.

It was also tiring. He stood for more than six hours with about 100,000 people in a special section about 100 yards from where the president was sworn in.

The night before, Arsenault and his wife, Kathleen, the retired dean of the Nelson Poynter Memorial Library, attended the Florida State Ball at the Andrew Mellon Ballroom at the Treasury Department. The ball was a benefit for the Florida House, which serves as the state’s “embassy’’ in Washingon, D.C. Arsenault, co-founder of the Florida Studies Program and chairman of the History and Politics Department in the College of Arts and Sciences at USFSP, collaborated with the Florida House in 2011 as the director of a workshop for Pinellas County social studies teachers on Teaching American History.

Arsenault’s book, Freedom Riders: 1961 and the Struggle for Racial Justice, won the Frank L. and Harriet C. Owsley Award of the Southern Historical Association. A 2010 documentary based on the book won three Emmys and a Peabody Award.