Fifty years after laying their bodies on the line to integrate the South, three ’60s-era civil rights activists known as Freedom Riders told hundreds gathered Saturday at a Northeast church that the battle against racism is far from over.
Rev. Reginald Green, a Freedom Rider who is now interim pastor of Israel Baptist Church, said that in the 1960s, it took college students and others being beaten, jailed and lynched to make progress.
Green, who was arrested as a Freedom Rider in Jackson, Miss., wrote a letter from jail to his father and gave it to a reporter traveling with a group of Freedom Riders from D.C.
He asked the reporter to deliver it to his father, who thought he was still at Virginia Union University in Richmond.
“Thank God he got that letter from me,” Green said.
In the 1960s, Joan Mulholland was supposed to be at Duke University and Dion Diamond at Howard, but these students and others instead paused their college careers to become Freedom Riders.
The trio was joined by civil rights veteran and former D.C. Council member Frank Smith to be part of the Black History Month program called “The Price of Freedom.” The program was held at Israel Baptist Church, which was led for many years by the late Rev. Morris Sheron, a longtime civil rights leader in the city.
The forum came on the same day that Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam apologized but said he wasn’t stepping down for racist photo from his medical school yearbook page showing one person in blackface and another wearing a Ku Klux Klan hood and robe.
The Saturday’s event was moderated by Washington Post columnist Colbert King, who during the forum answered a question posed to all of the panelists about why they are still fighting for social justice decades later.
“I am still angry. I am still angry when I think about riding the trolley car that used to go up to Glen Echo,” King said. “The White kids could get off, but we couldn’t.”
Diamond was one of the activists who tried to integrate a segregated amusement park in Montgomery County, where today a merry-go-round stands as a crumbling remnant of the segregated past.
“Glen Echo was segregated and we were looking for a place to integrate,” said Diamond, who got so involved in the civil rights movement that he never went back to Howard. “When I went back, I enrolled at the University of Wisconsin and then Harvard.”
Diamond looked down at his stomach and said, “If I had this stomach back then, I would have been killed. A shotgun blast just missed my stomach. I only weighed 128 pounds.”
Mulholland proudly showed her mugshot from the Jackson, Mississippi, jail. Asked why more young people don’t get involved, she said “they rely too much on devices. They are not talking face to face.”
But there were young people who came to Israel looking to be part of a new movement, including 16-year-old Meira’cholle Fashion.
“I think that young people care,” Meira’cholle said. “There is a generation gap, they just need to be more aware.”
Tiffany Smallwood, who brought her 19-year-old daughter, called the event “an opportunity to learn from people actually participated in the civil rights movement. This is living history.”