Of 436 Freedom Riders who boarded buses to help end Jim Crow in the South in 1961 in defiance of whites-only rules, only four were Southern white females. Joan Browning was one of them.
“I’m the most ordinary person who will ever have a footnote in history,” Browning said. “I grew up on a small family farm in south Georgia in a totally segregated community.”
Educated in a two-room schoolhouse, she excelled at math and wanted to be a physicist. But life had other plans for her.
Browning was one of three Freedom Riders, now in their 70s, who traveled to Covenant Church in Easton on Jan. 28 to tell their stories. She, Reginald Green and Dion Diamond put their lives on the line as college students to stand up to injustice and end segregation on interstate buses and other areas of American life.
Their activism was instrumental in passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, signed into law by President Lyndon Johnson. Somebody had to do it, but they all said their parents wished it had been someone else’s child.
Jim Crow refers to the racial caste system that operated primarily, but not exclusively, in Southern and border states between the late 1870s and the mid-1960s. It legalized segregation between African Americans and whites, restricting the rights of African Americans to use public facilities and schools and to vote, find decent employment, and exercise their rights as U.S. citizens.
The Freedom Riders set off a wave of activism that spawned the women’s movement, the environmental movement, gay power, and the Americans with Disabilities Act.
Easton resident Wiley Mullins organized the visit, with the support of the Rev. Cary Slater, Covenant Church pastor. It coincided with the start of Black History Month, which continues through February.
Other Easton clergy attended the gathering, including the Rev. Amanda Ostrove of the Congregational Church of Easton.
Covenant Church Easton is an Evangelical Christian church at One Sport Hill Road, just off the Merritt Parkway, with members throughout the region.
Church was an important part of Browning’s upbringing. “Most of what we learned at Sunday School was that God is love,” she said. The humble church she attended as a child was mostly lay-led and had a simple, childlike simplicity, she said.
After graduating from high school, Browning attended Georgia State College for Women with the intention of becoming a physicist.
While at college, she went to a Methodist Church that was more sophisticated than the church she grew up in. But she wasn’t as comfortable at the new church, and while taking a walk, she made the acquaintance of the pastor of an African Methodist Episcopal Church.
The pastor invited her to worship at his church, which she found to be more like her home church. But it was 1961 in the segregated South, and it was not to be.
“The president of my college got a message that if I continued to worship there the church would be burned,” Browning said. “And unspecified acts of terrorism would befall the college and me.”
The president of the college decided she was dispensable. Browning lost her scholarship and had to leave.
“I’m still searching for what’s wrong with going to church,” she said.
She got a job at Emory University and became involved in the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, participating in sit-ins at local lunch counters.
A black student jumped in front of her and another white student one day at a lunch counter after a Klansman appeared to stop the peaceful protest and stabbed the black student. The black student was charged with carrying the knife that stabbed him, and the Klansman was exonerated.
“Any notion I had that the justice system dispersed justice disappeared,” Browning said. “When something clicks in your mind and you know something is wrong in the world and you can’t allow it to go on, then you can stand up and make a difference.”
At the age of 19 she rode the Central Georgia Railroad as part of the Freedom Ride from Atlanta to Albany, Ga., on Dec. 10, 1961. When she arrived in Albany, she was arrested immediately.
Thirty years after she had been asked to leave Georgia State College for Women, she completed her bachelor of arts degree at a historically black school.
Green interrupted his divinity studies to get involved in the Civil Rights Movement and was arrested multiple times.
“I was just a young man from the southwest of Washington who decided one day to get on a bus and ride through the South,” he said.
The Freedom Riders’ visit came just as President Donald Trump issued his executive order closing the nation’s borders to people from a list of predominantly Muslim countries.
“Now we’re on a precipice and being challenged and could lose the things that make us free,” Green said. “The message to young people at a time such as this is to figuratively get on the bus, fight injustice, stand up for those coming in, since we are a nation of immigrants.”
So much sacrifice has been made and so many have given their lives to fight for human rights. The only ones who didn’t come as immigrants are Native Americans, he said.
As an African American youngster, Green could not attend Washington’s public schools.
“Even though there were no signs as in the South that said colored and white, there were certain boundaries and things we couldn’t do,” he said. “I think of how many times I climbed the Capitol steps, knowing they were made by the hands of African American slaves who labored and built those steps and helped build those buildings. It reminds us how we need to continue to do those things God has called us to do.”
After completing military reserve training, he attended Virginia Union University in Richmond, Va., at a time when student sit-ins and protest movements had begun.
Then, on May 14, 1961, his life took a new direction after a Trailways bus carrying Freedom Riders burst into flames. On that day, seven black and six white riders had left Washington, D.C., on two public buses, bound for the Deep South. They intended to test whether the Southern states would enforce the 1960 Supreme Court ruling that declared segregation unconstitutional in interstate bus and rail stations.
“As a result of that image of the bus exploding, three of us decided to join the riders,” Green said. “We knew the risk was great, but we got on the bus and went to Jackson, Miss.”
After the bus reached its destination, Green spent 29 days in jail. Following his release he met Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in Atlanta.
“If I’m preparing for ministry eventually, I couldn’t talk about ministry without knowing that I should be involved,” Green said. “If we walk together we can get to the promised land.”
Green went on to earn a master of divinity degree and served for 40 years as a pastor of Walker Memorial Baptist Church in Washington, D.C.
He preached two Sunday morning sermons at Covenant Church during his stay.
“The congregation was moved, many to tears, by his sermon and the spirit he has about him,” Slater, the Covenant Church pastor, said.
Diamond grew up in a segregated Virginia town with a black entrance and a white entrance to public buildings, like the library. As a physics major at Howard University in Washington, D.C., in 1960, he planned to become a nuclear physicist.
He became involved with the Non-Violent Action Group to break Jim Crow in the suburbs, right across the Potomac River, and succeeded in desegregating lunch counters in Virginia.
“I conducted my own personal sit-ins,” Diamond said. “I would go to lunch counters, but when police showed up you’d be surprised how fast I moved.”
He served as a Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee field secretary in Mississippi and Louisiana from 1961 to 1963.
Diamond rode in the second Freedom Ride. He was on the Greyhound bus that arrived in Jackson, Miss., shortly after another bus carrying a group of Freedom Riders showed up.
The riders were arrested as soon as the bus arrived in Jackson and were sent to the Mississippi State Prison. A long weekend away from college turned into more than two years.
Diamond was also arrested in East Baton Rouge, La., and charged with “criminal anarchy” for allegedly attempting to overthrow the government of Louisiana because he urged students at a black university there to strike. Several students had been expelled from the school for picketing for integration.
Through connections he made, he had the opportunity to return to school at the University of Wisconsin in Madison in 1963, but he changed his major to history and sociology.
“I wanted to find out why it took so long from emancipation to the civil rights movement” to desegregate American life,” he said. “Being an activist changed my life. If you don’t know your history you’re going to get bitten on the butt by what happened in the past.”
Twin daughters marched
Mike Varga of Fairfield was one of a dozen or so audience members who spoke up in an interactive session after the talk.
“I have twin daughters,” Varga said. “On the day after Inauguration Day, they were both walking. One was walking in San Diego, and the other in Antarctica. My daughters were carrying on what you started back in the 60s.”
He commiserated with the parents of Green, Browning and Diamond, and said he, too, wished it was someone else’s children.
But Varga said his daughters don’t want to just sit there and watch. They want to participate and make a difference, and so does he.
Rev. Cary Slater
Slater, Covenant Church pastor, said he was encouraged by the number of people who attended and by what their attendance said — that something is not right in society and they want better.
“I want to be part of bringing about reconciliation,” Slater said. “The stories told by the Freedom Riders were personally inspirational and motivating; how individuals can make a difference by joining in with others. I was encouraged by Joan Browning’s comment that she is the most ordinary person you will ever come across, but by joining with others at the right time, she was able to make an impact.
“I think she’s being a little too humble because her courage is extraordinary; her perspective was certainly not ordinary in that place and time. But I think it does encourage us that we as individuals can make a difference when we act.”
Slater said he was glad that pastors and parishioners from Easton, Bridgeport, Fairfield, and other towns joined together for the event. The next step is moving from an event that is easy to attend and turning it into action, he said.
Rev. Amanda Ostrove
Ostrove, pastor of the Congregational Church of Easton, said she felt this was a unique opportunity to talk with some of the original civil rights activists in a way that would create conversation, inspiration, opportunities for growth, and motivation to enact the love of Christ in the world for all peoples.
“I found their stories so inspirational, and the way that they answered our questions to be honest, straightforward and humble,” Ostrove said. “They treated all questions as important and with respect.
“I believe it is important to continue these discussions, creating opportunities for people to come together to dispel hate and misunderstanding and to work for the equal treatment of all peoples.
I believe this is just the beginning of what can be done with the experiences of Saturday night.”
Mullins, who organized the event said, “I was hoping to bring ‘living History’ to our community and to introduce young people as well as old folks to some people who changed history by making great personal sacrifice. I strongly believe that injustices today can be corrected if well meaning people stop being silent and stop caring about ‘just’ their needs.
“Covenant Church was the perfect setting for a couple of reasons:
- Jesus didn’t encourage or tolerate injustice toward anyone.
- You can be an ordinary person and change things if you’re willing too. Our Freedom Rider guests are just simple everyday people.