Three Freedom Riders, the civil rights activists who rode interstate buses in 1961 to demand the enforcement of the Supreme Court ruling that desegregated public buses, spoke to students during a nonviolence teach-in and conflict de-escalation training at SIS on September 28.
Dion Diamond, Reverend Reginald Green, and Joan Mulholland were among hundreds of young black and white Americans who challenged the South’s non-compliance with the 1960 Boynton v. Virginia decision to desegregate interstate bus facilities. After several months of resilient protests in the face of imprisonment and brutal violence, the Freedom Riders achieved their goal when the Interstate Commerce Commission began enforcing the ruling.
“I brought the Freedom Riders to campus as a model of social courage,” said SIS Professorial Lecturer Barbara Wien, who organized the event. “My students tell me they are hungry for such role models in today's political climate and wish to draw strength from 'the elders.’”
For Wien, the Freedom Riders are models from a previous generation who used nonviolence to fight hate and racism in the US: “The Freedom Riders were beaten within inches of their lives, firebombed on buses, and put on death row in Mississippi’s worst penitentiary. They turned the prison into a nonviolence training academy.”
The event opened with Reverend Reginald Green leading the room in a protest song that he and fellow Freedom Riders sang to keep their spirits up, even while in prison. His voice rang throughout the room, “Oh freedom, oh freedom, oh freedom over me / And before I’d be a slave, I’ll be buried in my grave / And go home to my Lord and be free.”
During their introductions and answers to student questions, Diamond, Green, and Mulholland elaborated on the differing reasons they participated in the Freedom Rides, described their stances on nonviolence, and stressed the importance of working towards a cause.
Joining the Freedom Riders
Green experienced racism in public education firsthand when he was forced to travel to a junior high school far from home because the closest school was for white students. While in college in Virginia, Green participated in sit-ins. His involvement in campus activism, as well as his reaction to an image from the very first Freedom Ride, led him to become a rider himself. “I got involved…because of the image of that bus that was burned and mobbed in Anniston, Alabama. The image of something can have a very penetrating effect on your life, it can do things to you,” he said.
Joan Mulholland set herself on the path towards civil rights activism when, at about 10 years old, she snuck off with a friend to the black neighborhood near her grandmother’s home. There, she saw the dilapidated one-room school for black students that was incomparable to the beautiful brick building that white students attended.
“Just the stark contrast made me aware of the inequities of the situation and started a resolve in me that, when I got the chance to do something to make the South the best that it could be, I would seize the moment,” said Mulholland.
Dion Diamond illustrated the everyday injustices black Americans faced during the Jim Crow era to the students gathered: “When I grew up, there was a completely segregated town. There was a black high school, and there was a white high school. There was a water fountain that would say ‘colored’ on it or ‘white’ on it,” said Diamond.
As a teenager, Diamond practiced personal sit-ins before the term was ever printed in the papers. “I would purposefully go to the lunch counter [of a department store], and I would sit down. I knew darn well I wasn’t supposed to be there, because it was whites only.” When the people behind the counter told Diamond he shouldn’t be there, he responded by saying he wanted a sandwich. Only after the police were called did Diamond ever abdicate his seat.
Diamond’s involvement in the Freedom Rides stemmed from these individual protests at “whites-only” lunch counters in his hometown: “It’s something that you feel within yourself: that this is right, I’m going to make a difference.”
Encouraging students to find their cause
Diamond, Green, and Mulholland all offered advice to students and young people seeking to improve the world. They also impressed on those attending that improving the world requires the dedication and work of younger generations.
“Know your cause, know your place in it, and go for it, because you can change the world,” said Mulholland. “We tried, and we changed it a little bit, but now it’s up to ya’ll to completely change the world.”
Green brought the recent racist incidents on American University’s campus into the dialogue, using them as examples of continued racism that hits close to home and attempts to reverse progress made since 1961.
“In the nation’s capital, at American University, bananas thrown at African American students, a noose hung, and now cotton and the Confederate flag,” remarked Green. “After all that we had done to try to move us forward—the Civil Rights Act, the Voting Rights Act, and on and on—we see evidence now trying to take us back to those days that we struggled to get away from.”
Diamond echoed the sense that, despite positive changes since the Freedom Rides took place, the US has more work ahead. “Look at this world today. We’ve made a lot of improvement, but nevertheless, we’ve got a long way to go, and it’s left up to you—your generation and your kids’ generation—to improve upon what we have,” said Diamond.
Addressing conflict through nonviolence
When asked by students about the use and successes of nonviolent protest, each Freedom Rider offered their own understanding of nonviolence and how it applied to their own lives.
Diamond recognized nonviolence as a “practical approach” rather than a way of life: “I recognize it as a tactic. I know I can’t win individually using nonviolence, but collectively, I see it as a very motivational and wonderful tactic.”
“I do see nonviolence as a way of life,” countered Green. He cautioned that nonviolence need not require stoicism or ambivalence: “Having nonviolence as a way of life does not mean that you cannot get angry or you cannot be disgusted.”
Green further explained how nonviolence figured into the Freedom Rides and brought together people from all backgrounds and walks of life. “We knew going in that it would be a challenge, and not everyone was in agreement on the tactics or the strategy. Some of us agree with nonviolence as a strategy, and some agree with it as a kind of philosophical way of living,” said Green. “We had a mix of people—women, men, young, old, college student, not college student, atheist, religious people, you name it—who all made the Freedom Rides possible. It wasn’t just a black thing or a white thing.”
The event ended with a de-escalation training, modeled after the Freedom Riders’ use of nonviolence to confront racism, that American University students can use today if they are in or observe a racist conflict. The training included roleplaying, simulations, and large-scale exercises that used critical incidents that students might face, such as someone committing a hate crime or insulting students of color, to teach methods of addressing conflicts.
“Ending hate and racism in the US is going to take sacrifice and struggle,” warned Wein, “but such societal conflicts need not be bloody.”