The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

He joined the Freedom Rides of the ’60s for what he thought would be a weekend. It turned out to be two years.

Freedom Rider Dion Diamond sitting in his home office on May 21, 2011, in Washington, D.C. (Mark Gail/The Washington Post)

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In observance of Black History Month, About Us is sitting down with activists from the civil rights movement of the 1960s to the Black Lives Matter protests of today.

Dion Diamond, 79, participated in the Freedom Rides of 1961, when activists rode buses from Washington, D.C., to Jackson, Miss., to challenge segregation. While some of the most famous Freedom Riders, including the late Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), are lauded now, opinion polls conducted at the time found that just 22 percent of Americans approved of the Freedom Riders. Current racial justice campaigns, such as the Black Lives Matter movement, have also been met with skepticism. In 2016, about 43 percent of American adults supported the movement, a Pew Research Center survey found. In June 2020, when the number of protests reached their peak after the police killing of George Floyd, 67 percent of adults said they strongly or somewhat support the Black Lives Matter movement, Pew reported. By September, that support dropped to 55 percent.

Diamond took time off as a student at Howard University to devote his full attention to the movement, through voter registrations and sit-ins throughout the country. He later transferred to the University of Wisconsin, where he studied history and sociology. After graduate school at Harvard, he went on to work for the federal and D.C. governments before eventually becoming an independent consultant. He’s now retired, and living in Washington. Diamond shared his thoughts on Black Lives Matter, which he sees as a continuation of the work of activists in the ’60s.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

When did you first get involved in the civil rights movement?

Prior to getting involved in the movement, I had my own personal involvement as a kid of about 16. I’m from Petersburg, Virginia, and at that time — this is the ’50s — that town was one segregated town. I would get joy out of sitting at the lunch counter for Whites only and they refused to serve me. They’d go get the manager and I still wouldn’t move and then they’d call the police. And when I saw the police coming, I very quickly made an exit through the back door. So that’s how I first got involved in it.

When I got to Washington, D.C., as a freshman at Howard University, the sit-ins were starting throughout the South. Howard was supposedly the zenith, the epitome of Black education. And I said, ‘How can we not participate in these sit-ins?’ Well, back then, D.C. did not have specific Jim Crow laws. But if you went across the river into Virginia, that’s where segregation was written. So, we got some folks together and we drove across the river to Arlington. I believe it was a Drug Fair that we first chose. And we formed this group called the Nonviolent Action Group or NAG, and that’s the first incident that we had.

What was that first experience like?

It was not something that was cheerful. I mean, we learned very quickly that as long the press was around, we felt somewhat safe, but it was a new experience and I guess we were all jittery. I don’t know if you’ve seen the picture of the kid, he couldn’t have been more than 13 or 14 years of age, pointing the finger at my face. I was amused, or bemused as the case may be, that this young squirt had the audacity to just get in my face. But it only got tense when George Lincoln Rockwell, the head of the American Nazi Party, came in and I must admit, it was an anxious time. But again, the place was filled with folks and I figured as long as there was such a crowd and the police or the press was there I wasn’t overwhelmed.

When did you get more active in the movement?

In May of 1961, I left to go join the Freedom Rides thinking it might be a long weekend, it turned out to be two and a half years. I got arrested on the first day that two buses rolled into Jackson, Mississippi. And I think it was either 57 or 67 days we were in jail. We were first put in the Hinds County Jail in Jackson. And from there we were sent to a prison farm, and from the prison farm to the state penitentiary. We could never figure out why we kept moving around. We were just ignorant of the fact that more people were being arrested and they ran out of jail space. Of course, we had no way of knowing what was going on.

Looking back, are you surprised that your younger self was able to do all of this?

I’m not certain we understood exactly what we were getting into. People ask me, ‘Would I do it again?’ Well, first of all, if I were that age again, I probably would, but I guess as you get older you start realizing dangers that you don’t recognize as a youngster. I really should have been aware of what could happen, as did happen to Chaney and Goodman, the civil rights workers who got killed. When those things happened, we all became more aware of the possibilities. My parents were not aware of my involvement, they found out because of a newspaper reporter. If I were a parent back then and I had a kid who wanted to participate in the civil rights activities, I would be quite leery and quite frightened.

What was your parents’ reaction?

They were enthusiastic, but they wished it was somebody else’s son. They were concerned about my well-being.

At what point did you stop being involved in the activism?

In September of 1963, I went to Columbus, Ohio, to go to the annual convention of the National Student Association, which is an organization of college student governments across the country, and I went there to get volunteers to come to the South. And then one particular day when I was there, I picked up a newspaper and it showed that jobs were opening or becoming available for persons of color who had a college degree. And this was ’63, the year that I was supposed to graduate from college. That was my class. And I don’t know why, but I happened to say out loud, “You know, I think it’s time for me to get back in school.” And the person who was standing right next to me was president of the student body at the University of Wisconsin. And he asked me if I was serious, and “Would you like to consider coming to Madison, to Wisconsin?” And I said, “Heck, yes.” He said, “Don’t move.” He crossed the floor of the convention floor and came back with the guy who happened to be the dean of students at the University of Wisconsin. And I think two weeks later, I enrolled as a student at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. And that was essentially the end of my activism.

What do you make of the of the Black Lives Matter movement of today?

The Black Lives Matter movement is nothing more than a continuation of what we tried to do, what, 60 years ago? People started the groundwork long before we did, I mean, as soon as World War II was over and the vets came back, the vets of color said, “We aren’t taking it anymore.” I guess this is an evolutionary thing, I mean, you make small gains and you need someone to capitalize on the small gains to make them larger. And I suppose if you ever become content to a less-than-equal status, that gain will be taken away.

What advice would you give to young activists?

There’s very little advice that I can give these kids. If anything, they could give advice to me. I feel as if I am no longer the activist, I know I’m not the activist that I was. It’s time for a new generation to take over. ... I regret absolutely nothing that I have done, I have many regrets for what I have not done. My regret now is that I have allowed myself to become complacent by today’s standards. I’m 79 years of age. Here I am doing absolutely nothing other than making a financial contribution to various things every now and then. And I don’t like what I’ve become. I mean, I guess if you were to buy a product and looked at this out of the box, it would say “use by” or “good until,” well, that’s me. I think that date has caught up with me. That’s a hell of a thing to say, isn’t it?