'Carry the torch:' Freedom Riders reflect on civil rights and Black Lives Matter movements

Photo of Katrina Koerting

Dion Diamond grew up in Petersburg, Va. — “a totally segregated town” — for the first 18 years of his life.

But he refused to be limited by that world view, and in 1959 took matters into his own hands, staging his own personal sit-in.

“I would go into the local five and dime store, go to the white-only lunch counter, only to be told I couldn’t be served, and I would sit,” Diamond said at an event Thursday sponsored by Easton, Weston and Redding organizations to kick off their Black History Month programming.

And while he’s seen progress with desegregation throughout the country, and noted that Black politicians and police chiefs now serve in places where he was once arrested for protesting and more integrated families are on television, he cautioned there remained work to do.

“If you look at racial issues today, don’t think that we have made it to the promised land,” he said. “You’ve got to carry the torch again and take it down the road a wee bit more.”

Diamond was one of three early civil rights activists — known as Freedom Riders — who spoke at Thursday’s event. The other panelists were Charles Person, who was on the first Freedom Ride, and Joan Browning, who was expelled from her white women’s college for attending a Black church and was on one of the last Freedom Rides.

The Freedom Riders were civil activists who rode interstate buses throughout the South during the spring and summer of 1961 to show that a 1960 Supreme Court ruling that made it illegal to segregate public buses, bus terminals and restaurants serving interstate buses wasn’t being enforced.

The rides began in May 1961 and lasted seven months. The Interstate Commerce Commission ultimately issued new regulations with fines of up to $500 that eventually ended segregated bus facilities.

“The Freedom Rides were important,” Person said. “It was one of the first major campaigns where, in the end when the edict was passed, it affected every state in the union. That was a good thing because you didn’t have to replicate it in each state like we had to do in the sit-ins.”

Person got involved while he was studying at Morehouse College, a historically Black college in Atlanta. Before the rides, he was involved in the sit-ins, marches and boycotts. He was arrested in February 1961 and spent 10 days in solitary confinement “for singing too loud,” he said.

Person said he was trained in nonviolence tactics and so readily applied for the Freedom Rides when the Congress of Racial Equality, or CORE, asked for student volunteers.

“At that time, I would have volunteered to go anywhere, any time, to fight segregation,” he said.

He was beaten during the first ride in Alabama; the damage included a lump the size of his fist at the base of his skull he carried until it was surgically removed in 1996.

He also said he soon learned the other bus on the ride had been stopped by white protesters and Ku Klux Klan members who smashed the windows, beat the riders and threw a firebomb into the bus.

Diamond was also among the first Freedom Riders. He continued fighting segregation while attending Howard University, a historically Black college in Washington, D.C., which itself wasn’t segregated so the students focused on civil rights activities across the river in Virginia. After successful sit-ins and protests, Diamond said he signed up for the Freedom Rides.

“On May 24th of 1961, I left school thinking I was going to be gone on a long weekend,” he said. “That long weekend lasted two years and three months. That was the bus that went into Jackson, Mississippi, from Montgomery.”

He was arrested in Jackson.

Once he was released, he stayed to register voters in Mississippi and did sit-ins in Maryland. He was arrested again in Louisiana and charged with seven different crimes as he tried to recruit students to help with voter registration.

“I was charged with criminal anarchy. They said that I was trying to overthrow the government of the state of Louisiana,” Diamond said. “In fact, now that I think about it, I was guilty of that. That state had laws that said segregation was legal and that’s what I was trying to overthrow.”

All three speakers said activism is built on the work of those who came before, both for them in the 1960s and with Black Lives Matter today.

“We didn’t come out of nowhere,” Browning said. “We came out of a long history of resistance.”

They said it was important to know the history and build on that.

“Don’t forget where the history of our country is,” Diamond said. “Please keep trying to get equal rights for all of us.”

They also offered advice for young people organizing Black Lives Matter events: marching designated routes that return to the starting point so participants can return home safely; not having events at night, and making sure there is a clear mission so people know what you stand for. They also cautioned against people trying to hijack the movement.

They said there was a strong sense of community among the Freedom Riders that was fostered from their training and time together — which, they said, isn’t apparent in some movements around the world today where people organize online.

“I would have died for the other Freedom Riders and they would have died for me,” Browning said.

Within Connecticut, they said it’s important for affluent communities to address disparities, especially in terms of schools where they can ensure students have access to the same quality of resources and technology.

Wiley Mullins, one of the event’s leaders, said the Freedom Riders visited Darien and Bridgeport’s high schools on their last visit to Connecticut in 2017.

“There’s an absolute stark difference, yet all of those kids are asked to compete in the same room,” Mullins said.

Browning said her answer for why she, as a white woman, decided to join the Freedom Rides, makes the same point.

“We’re all limited by not taking advantage of all the skills and all the resources and developing the children to the best they can be,” she said. “It’s not doing something for the less advantageous, it’s doing something that’s good for all of us.”

kkoerting@newstimes.com