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Local Freedom Riders recall yesterday’s fright, today’s pride

By Avis Thomas-Lester,

The way Dion Diamond remembers it, his June 1960 arrest for the “sit-down” at the Howard Johnson’s on Lee Highway in Arlington County marked the first of 30 times he was locked up.

“You have to ask the FBI the locations, though,” he said. “I can’t remember all the places where I’ve been arrested. You know how on job applications where they ask if you’ve ever been arrested? I always had to give an explanation.”

Diamond, now 69 and a retired social services and human-resources executive who lives in Northwest Washington, racked up his arrests protesting segregation, voting-rights violations and other discriminatory practices in an activist career that took him from Howard University to the Deep South as part of the Freedom Riders, blacks and whites — many of them students — who challenged segregation in public transportation in 1961, mostly in Mississippi.

This month, as Freedom Riders across the country celebrate the 50th anniversary of their activism, Diamond and other D.C. residents reflected on the movement and the special place the city holds in its history.

Howard, part of the black Ivy League, was a hotbed of student activism at the time. The first bus of Freedom Riders departed May 4, 1961, from the District.

Marion Barry, the city’s four-term mayor and now a D.C. Council member, remains perhaps the movement’s most famous alumnus in the area. He was a student in Nashville when he signed on.

But other Freedom Riders who now live in the area, such as Diamond, led more private lives. There’s Paul Green, 72, who spent his career as a mathematics professor at the University of Maryland. He and Diamond lived a few blocks from each other for years in the District without realizing it until recently.

Then there’s Reginald Green, 71, the retired longtime pastor of Walker Memorial Baptist Church in Northwest and a resident of Northeast. And Baba El Senzengakulu Zulu — Lester McKinnie back when he was a Freedom Rider — who lives in Northwest and runs the D.C. charter Ujamaa School.

“Howard was the zenith of black education, and the students were very active,” Diamond recalled.

Accolades this time

He and the other local residents were among the Freedom Riders celebrated on Oprah Winfrey’s show this month. Several, including Diamond and Reginald Green, were among those who also returned to Mississippi last week for a 50th anniversary celebration.

Neither had gone back there for years.

The trip was an emotional one, Diamond said. As the Freedom Riders and their families wended their way through Jackson, hundreds of men, women and children of all races lined the route and waved, many with tears in their eyes.

The police who escorted them represented all races; the chief who ordered the escort was a black woman.

“I cried, because it hit me then the impact of our actions 50 years ago,” Diamond said. “When I remembered the reaction of white people back then compared to the response we received now, it got to me. We hastened the passage of the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act. We helped change things on the local level and on the national level. . . . I felt proud that I had been part of that.”

Paul Green, a New York native, was earning a graduate degree in math at Cornell when he and a few friends heard about the call against segregation in Mississippi.

“We had talked about sending money, and then somebody suggested that we put our money where our mouths were and go down to volunteer,” said Green, who is white. They headed to New Orleans in a friend's car, then got on a train to Jackson. When they arrived, they were arrested and jailed.

Reginald Green was a 21-year-old theology student at Virginia Union University when he headed to Nashville on June 7, 1961, and then on to Jackson.

When, in a harrowing incident in Anniston, Ala., racists burned the bus carrying the first group of Freedom Riders from the District, he was one of several students from across the nation who responded to a call for a second wave to keep the public transportation initiative alive. The Congress of Racial Equality paid for bus tickets for him and two others who left from the District.

Jail conditions

Reginald Green didn’t tell his parents he was going to Mississippi. They learned it from a reporter who contacted his parents after he and the others on his bus had been jailed in Jackson.

He spent six weeks locked up with his black comrades in the Mississippi State Penitentiary in Parchman, one of the most notorious prisons in the South.

That’s where Zulu, then 19, also ended up.

At Parchman, the men were allowed to shower only every four days. They were always held at gunpoint, even when bathing. They were allowed neither exercise nor communication with the outside world.

To keep their spirits up, Zulu said, the men in Block 17, where many of the black male activists were held, sang.

“The guards would threaten to take our mattresses,” Reginald Green said. “But our attitude was, ‘We're already in jail. What else can you do to us?’  Music was so important in the African American community back then, and it was with us in Parchman. We took the old Negro spirituals and translated them into messages about the movement. That helped get us through.”

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