It was 1961.
In 1960, the United States Supreme Court had ruled that racial segregation in interstate public
transportation facilities — including bus terminals — was unconstitutional.
Despite the Supreme Court ruling, many facilities remained segregated. This was especially true in the South. Restrooms, dining rooms and waiting rooms continued to be designated as “whites only” and “colored.” Racial segregation and discrimination continued its tight grip on the South, and indeed, in all of the U.S.
A group of 13 people decided to protest the situation and call attention to southern defiance of the Supreme Court ruling. The group was a mix of Black and white Americans, men and women, retired educators and young students, ministers, musicians, military veterans, carpenters and activists. Among them was John Lewis, a seminary student who later became a U.S. Congressman.
On May 4, 1961, the Freedom Riders (as the group was now called) boarded a Greyhound bus in Washington, D.C., and began a two-week trip to New Orleans. At each stop, the Riders would disembark and attempt to enter “whites only” facilities at bus depots.
The first incident of violence occurred on May 12 in South Carolina, when John Lewis and two other Riders were viciously attacked when they attempted to enter a whites-only waiting room. At other locations, local law enforcement arrested them when they attempted to use a whites-only restroom or sit down at a lunch counter.
When they reached Atlanta, the Riders split into two groups and boarded two different buses.
When one of the buses reached Anniston, Alabama, it was pursued by an angry mob in their vehicles. Someone threw a bomb onto the bus. It detonated and blew out the back of the bus. When the Freedom Riders attempted to escape, the mob surrounded them and beat them with baseball bats.
The second bus fared little better. When the Freedom Riders arrived in Birmingham, Alabama, they were greeted by an angry mob. Several of the Riders were severely beaten with metal pipes. Such was the level of hostility and rage evoked in white Americans at the prospect of racial integration — at the thought of whites and non-whites using the bathroom together, eating next to each other, sitting next to one another in a waiting room.
Despite the violence, more Freedom Rides were organized. During the summer and fall of 1961, over 60 Freedom Rides took place involving hundreds of Civil Rights activists. Their courageous actions drew national and international media attention to the state of American race relations, the persistence of racial segregation, and the ongoing fight for equality.
Two of the people who participated in those Freedom Rides of 1961 were Dion Diamond and Joan Browning. Dion was a 19-year-old college student who participated in the third Freedom Ride in May 1961 on a bus traveling from Montgomery, Alabama, to Jackson, Mississippi. He was arrested in Jackson and spent several months in Mississippi’s worst prison, Parchman Penitentiary.
Joan was a seasoned Civil Rights activist at the age of 19, having previously participated in sit-in demonstrations and protests in Augusta, Georgia. On Dec. 10, 1961, she was arrested in Albany, Georgia, on one of the last Freedom Rides.
Diamond and Browning are now in their 80s, but their experiences as young Freedom Riders in the 1960s continue to inspire audiences.
Minnesota West, in partnership with Southwest Minnesota State University (SMSU), is pleased to bring these two veterans of the Civil Rights Movement to our area. They will present, “Traveling Down Freedom’s Main Line: A Visit with Two Civil Rights Veterans” at 7 p.m. Sept. 29, in the Lower Level Conference Center at SMSU in Marshall, and again at 7 p.m. Sept. 30, in the Fine Arts Theater on the campus of Minnesota West Community & Technical College in Worthington. Both presentations are free and open to the public.
This is a rare opportunity to hear from two people who fought for racial equality during the Civil Rights Movement. We will learn from their own lips what it was like, what they experienced, and how they could be so courageous. Their stories will inspire us to be courageous in our own lives and challenge us to continue the fight against racism in our country today.