By Joseph Young
Washington area residents who participated in the historic Freedom Rides during the Civil Rights Movement shared their stories with students during a forum and field trip last weekend.
Danger and fear mingled at Parchman Penitentiary where the Freedom Riders, who rode buses from Washington to Mississippi 46 years ago to challenge segregation on interstate buses and terminals, were placed behind bars.
The jailers separated the diverse group by gender and race, and they were left isolated in private fear with no fixed point of reference.
“In a sense, you really didn’t know what was going on in certain experiences,” said Reginald Green, who was preparing for the ministry at Virginia Union before he joined the Freedom Riders. “But you had yourself to focus on.”
Joan Browning, a white Freedom Rider who grew up in Georgia, told of fearing the jailers would rape or murder her when she was confined in an Albany city jail.
“All through the night white men came, shinning flash lights at me as if I were a museum object,” said Browning.
Browning, who was put in a cell alone, distracted herself by writing notes about her experiences and how she felt. She could drop the fear that was to be expected, but her objectification by jailers from person to thing was unthinkable.
At a two-day forum last weekend at the Thurgood Marshall Center in Northwest, Browning, 64, and Green, 68, gathered with two other local Freedom Riders, to share their experience with elementary school students. They told students about their freedom ride and encouraged the young people to feel proud of their heritage and enthusiastic about their responsibility to contribute to society. The Freedom Riders strained for insight lost forever to quick recall.
More lasting, however, will be a documentary produced by Steven Nero, who coordinated the reunion. He organized the gathering with help of an $1800 grant from the D.C. Humanities Council and the African American Civil War Foundation.
“They are unsung heroes,” Nero, 53, said. “It just dawned on me that these are people that you sit right next to or live right next to, and you have no idea that they went to jail for 40 days in maximum security, took a 25-five hour bus ride from D.C. to go get arrested and possibly killed.” He believes these stories need to be told. “I also believe there is something to learn from their courage,” he added.
Author Raymond Arsenault, who wrote “Freedom Riders: 1961 and the Struggle for Racial Justice,” moderated the forum. Also joining the panel discussion was Lawrence Guyot, active in civil rights and one of the original Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee members.
Other Freedom Riders at the forum included Joan Mulholland, 65, who is white and now a teacher’s aide in Alexandria. She arrived in Mississippi in 1961 and was arrested for civil rights activities. She spent the summer at Hines County jail.
“There were people who were violently and unalterably opposed to what we were doing,” she said. They were considered “whites in the movement … as traitors.” She recalled hearing, “the only thing worst than a nigger was a nigger lover.”
Dion Diamond, a Howard University student majoring in physics, was active in the civil rights movement before he joined the Freedom Riders.
“Here is this little punk kid, [who said], ‘you nigger,’” Diamond remembered. He recalled a time when he was picketing at a lunch counter in Arlington, Virginia. “Of course, what I really wanted to do was punch him,” Daimond said.
In 1960, a year prior to the Freedom Rides, the Supreme Court had outlawed segregation on interstate buses and facilities, but Southern states such as Mississippi, Georgia and Alabama refused to enforce the ruling.
Although Attorney General Robert Kennedy didn’t support the Freedom Riders, the bravery of the student activists so stirred the nation, by the fall of 1961, Kennedy issued an injunction requiring Southern states to enforce the federal ruling.
“So much for federalism,” said Guyot, co-author of “Putting the Movement back in Civil Rights Teaching.”
Racism is real, but it doesn’t have to be stultifying,” Guyot said. “It does not have to be a condition of limitation. I look at it as a condition of opportunity.”
For much more, including excerpts from the forum with the four local Freedom Riders as they discussed their experiences in the civil rights movement, please visit us online at www.washingtoninformer.com