American Experience; Freedom Riders; Interview with Dion Diamond, 1 of 2
[Diamond] --Virginia which was a segregated town, segregated school system. I did not know any white people, in retrospect-- [Interviewer] Let's cut. For time's sakes with these guys next door, but I think we're okay to (inaudible) Okay, tell me about growing up in the segregated south. [Diamond] Petersburg, Virginia was a completely southern town, segregated, public school system segregated, and that was all I knew. I did not socialize whatsoever with any persons who would be called white, caucasian, whatever the case may be, but Petersburg had the
normal five and dime stores, Kresge's, Woolworth's, etc.-- had a segregated, what can I say, eating area, before sit-ins became sit-ins, I sat-in. [Interviewer] Okay. When you think of the segregated south, if you had to tell someone, your nephew or someone, about what it was like, what would you say? What would be essence of it, what to say, what it was like to grow up in the segregated south? [Diamond] Quite frankly I'd really say, "you know, kid, you don't know what life was like you don't even know your history." [Interviewer] Okay, I mean for you to tell me, I don't want you to tell me that as you're telling a kid, I just want you to tell me the story about the segregated south, so what was it,
what was the thing, what was the segregated south like, tell me that. In other words I was-- is there a story, is there something that happened to you that was the deepest, darkest thing that you would think of when you think about growing up in the segregated south? [Diamond] The only thing that growing up in the south, or in Petersburg, Virginia specifically that really impressed me as a person of color was that I couldn't go to the local public library without going through a colored entrance. There was a woman, her name was Mrs. Word, I think it's kind of funny in a way, Mrs. Word was the black librarian and I think after the fact that the word was Mrs. Word, we, i.e. me, black, colored,
Negro, whatever I was at that particular time could not go into the stacks. We would have to go to Mrs. Word, to say "this is the book that I think I want to see," and she would indeed go into the stacks. Of course on the other side of the building was the white entrance and I always considered that kind of funny. I don't know that I was taught at any particular point about segregation, it just existed and you couldn't help but note it. You couldn't go into-- again I refer to the lunch counters, but even the stores that sold garments, you couldn't try them on. I don't know that anyone ever taught me, you just knew your place. If that's acceptable, it it's nothing that was actually taught you.
You just gained it by osmosis, if you will. [Interviewer] One thing, Dion, is I want you to do is just stay back in the time that you're talking about. You were fine then, but I always have to remind people so I'm just reminding you before-- you know what I mean? So you're there, okay? Let's cut. Ok. Students at Howard where you were going to school thought about the horizons of what you could do to change things. [Diamond] Oh. I was at Howard University, supposedly one of the premier black institutions in the country. Washington D.C., while it was not a segregated town in fact, it was a very segregated town.
Howard University, as most people realize, was a traditionally black institution. The student body was essentially 99 percent black. The sit-ins started out in Greensboro and Nashville, etc. but here we were at this prestigious black institution but we couldn't do anything in Washington D.C. However if you ventured across the Potomac River into Virginia or if you went across an imaginary geographic line into Maryland, segregation existed in fact. Now I as a student at Howard trying to figure out, "hey, if we're at this prestigious institution, what can we do?" It won't do us any good to put up a picket line anywhere in D.C. because segregation was outlawed. So we started out
I as a-- pardon me saying, in a leadership role, we formed a group and we named ourselves the Non-Violent Action Group NAG. It's kind of funny at the time because our effort was to nag segregation. We started out in Arlington, Virginia at a drug fair trade chain of drug stores, sit-ins at lunch counters. It only took us about two weeks before the whole chain and the county collapsed. So wow, we've got our victory, what we do now? We move over to Maryland. There is a park which is now a national park, Glen Echo Amusement Park in Glen Echo, Maryland. At the time the D.C.
school system would pay to send kids there, white kids, for recreation but black kids couldn't go. We switched from Arlington, Virginia to Glen Echo, Maryland and we went from there. [Interviewer] So one of the things that the successful sit-ins in Nashville did was to give students at Howard, students around the country a shot in the arm, a kind of push forward, is that true or not? [Diamond] We students at Howard somehow felt that we couldn't-- we felt left out. We couldn't participate because obviously the people in Nashville and the kids in other southern cities had overt racial discrimination. For Howard students
we felt we had to find that shot in the arm, if you will, to go into Virginia and to go into Maryland to take on the segregation that existed there. [Interviewer] Talk about when you went when the bus was burned in Anniston, and how that media went out all over the world. And I think there was-- the power of that image, what did that do? [Diamond] With all due respect, you know, when I saw the burning of the bus in Anniston and all the other civil rights-related violence, if you will, I have to assume that it can only be described as youthful exuberance, when I went on the Freedom Ride I honestly-- I didn't
realize the harm's way that I was getting into. It's just that I knew that it was something that had to be done. And in retrospect believe me, I'm not certain if I would have been-- I'm not certain I would be as brave as I was then. I'm not certain if that explains my attitude, but it's like a kid who really doesn't know what he's getting into. [Interviewer] How did you come to go on the Freedom Rides, what happened? [Diamond] I went on the Freedom Ride after the ride stopped at Montgomery, Alabama.
I'm not certain how I recall how I was contacted or how I first knew that the ride was going to continue, but the ride had already gotten as far as Montgomery, this is after the burning, and we as a liaison, if you will, with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee knew that we could contact the guys in Nashville, we could contact the active people in the other towns of southern colleges, black colleges, and to this day I must admit perhaps because of age and lack of memory I flew into Montgomery.
I don't know if it was SCLC, or the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, or how I particularly knew how to leave Washington D.C. thinking I'm going for a long weekend, as a student at Howard. Needless to say it was more than a long weekend. I never got back to Howard. I don't know if-- again, back to Petersburg, Y.T. Walker, who was the executive director of Martin-- Dr. King's SCLC was my pastor at my church in Petersburg, Virginia. This whole thing is kind of convoluted because I think it was the SCLC who probably paid for a
ticket for me to get from Washington to Montgomery and as I said, I thought it was merely for a long weekend, I'd be back in class. [Interviewer] One thing I think that you talked about was the kind of relationship or tension that existed between SNCC, CORE, and the SCLC, what was the relationship at that point of the Freedom Rides between those three groups? [Diamond] I'm not certain how this is going to come over but nonetheless the relationship between SCLC, CORE, SNCC, I didn't even know about CORE. Um...SCLC tried to claim credit for what the students were doing and we had no relationship. I am told, and I must admit
ostensibly I was a part of the inner circle of the students. I have no knowledge whatsoever of the financial backing of CORE or SCLC. I do know that at one point we received some funds from SCLC. SCLC of course used the churches and that church network and they claimed credit for what the students were doing, but believe me we were not tethered, we did not-- we being SNCC, everybody was independent, I mean you talk about loose cannonballs, that's what SNCC was. Everybody was independent, anybody did their own thing.
[Interviewer] So when in Nashville SNCC decides to kind of take up the rides, did a call go out to kind of-- [Diamond] Yes. [Interviewer] Talk, tell me that, tell me about that. [Diamond] Well the only thing I can say is that we communicated and it wasn't like we got on the phone and said "today we're going to do this," it was almost like "today we did this," after the fact, and each of us reacted. It was not as if it was a planned activity, it was like "oh that's you're doing," and if we were to pick up a Johnson Publication, i.e. Jet Magazine or Ebony Magazine [coughs] excuse me, we would see what everybody was doing. It wasn't as if we had a fax machine and there was a coordina-- [Interviewer] How did you know that there was a group coming, going from Nashville
and to get ready here, that there was going to be a call put out for other SNCC members who might need to go on this Freedom Ride, is that how it worked or no? [Diamond] I can't answer that, I don't know. [Interviewer] Okay. Do you remember when the idea came to continue the rides? [Diamond] Well I think that's the same question. I think that's the same question. I truly do not recall how I individually became aware that the ride must continue and that here is my plane ticket. I didn't pay for that plane ticket. I merely knew that I should go to Montgomery. I merely knew that after getting to Montgomery where I should go and appear. Um...and the
planning for the particular bus that I was to go on, I had no involvement whatsoever in buying that ticket. [Interviewer] Okay, cut. Were you at the-- tell me about that. [Diamond] We were at a point in arriving in Montgomery. I went to, I believe it was a dentist, the home of a dentist. All of us who gathered there were to take the bus. We knew we were going to take the bus on the next day. I can only say that again youthful exuberance, because we really, at least at my age at that particular time, we didn't realize what we were-- we were really jeopardizing our lives.
I was on a bus and I-- this one is indelible. On the bus ride from Montgomery to Jackson, and most specifically when we got to the Alabama-Mississippi state line-- look, there were three helicopters hovering the entire bus trip. There were National Guardspersons or National Guardsmen on the bus. My memory says that their bayonets were on their rifles. They stood in the aisle. And I must admit I do not recall at this particular time whether or not those bayonets were sheathed or not. But at any rate what's specifically outstanding, aside from the three helicopters,
that had to be the Alabama highway patrol. At the state line, I still visualize at least four highway patrol cars in front of the bus, the same number in back of the bus, but more importantly when we got to the state line there was, for a hundred yards at least, cops on one side, i.e. the Alabama cops. And whatever that imaginary state line was, then there was the Mississippi cops on the other side. I mean it-- to me it was just a display of raw power.
I didn't know if they were going to protect us or kick our butts. I mean, you know, you got mixed emotions here. Everybody was white. Non-violence was the only frigging thing you could think of, not as a realistic philosophical thing, but hey, it was a tactic because obviously if they got the tanks, they got the guns, y'know. Hey! The only thing that I think I thought of was "I'm just glad that the press is here covering this," mainly because of the fact that if there were no press, they could've destroyed us ... um .. and that's ... I kind of laughed at some of it, y'know, like
all of this power that's being, you know, [one ?] out here ostensibly protecting us, and two, knowing they wanted to kick our butts, but only the press kind of made me realize that I think I feel somewhat safe. [Interviewer] Let's cut for a second. Now the idea was to prove that white and black people could or couldn't ride together through the south, but now you're on a bus, there's nothing but Freedom Riders on there-- [Diamond] Right, there were no passengers other than the Freedom Riders and the National Guardspeople, or the Guardsmen. And even the Freedom Riders, we didn't sit with one another. I mean, if there were nine people or ten people, ten Freedom Riders,
we didn't congregate with one another, we just took a seat, we're all looking out the window at all this massive display and we weren't even talking to one another. [Interviewer] Did it kind of defeat the purpose of what was supposed to be the Freedom Rides? Because now, I don't know what it proves now, you have this, again, there's no other people on the bus who can object or not object. You've got National Guardsmen on the bus with their rifles drawn, you've got helicopters, so now it's proving something else completely different I think. What it now is proving, if it's proving anything, is that Alabama and Mississippi can protect you all going across the state. It's not proving that you could ride or can't ride transportation. What about that? The way you guys kind of
rolled into Mississippi, did that in some ways violate what was the idea of the Freedom Rides? [Diamond] I think when we rolled into Mississippi or rolled out of Alabama, if you will, I'm not certain that we really realized what we're about. The age differential over the entire Freedom Ride period really was quite different. With us, with me, it was mostly 19 to 21 years of age kids. We were students, i.e. SNCC, Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. I once again will use the term "youthful exuberance." I'm not certain we truly realized the historical impact
and the historical nature of what we were doing. I mean even at the local level, aside from Alabama and Mississippi, here in metropolitan Washington, D.C., we didn't realize what we were about. [Interviewer] What happened when you got to -- changing the subject a little -- just going forward. What happened when you actually got to Jackson, Mississippi, what happened, do you remember? [Diamond] Sure, I remember stepping off the bus. I can still recall the face of the policeman who stood there waiting for us to disembark and essentially he said "You cannot go into this waiting room," i.e., the white waiting room at the bus station. We were prepped for that but I truly don't recall
sitting in on any particular class prepping us for that particular activity. But nevertheless that particular sheriff, he had to be in his fifty years, plus ready for retirement. And he just succinctly said "you will be arrested." We were. We were taken to the Hinds County, we were taken to the Hinds County jail-- [Interviewer] Let's cut. [Diamond] Please, thank you. [Interviewer] --waiting room, or you went into the bathroom to get arrested, you had to do something to get arrested. [Diamond] When we arrived in Jackson, we were met at the loading dock or the disembarkation dock, as you will,
and this police officer -- and he was an officer as opposed to merely a policeman -- and he just told us, "If you try to go into that waiting area that is for whites only, you will be arrested." We were arrested, because that's exactly where we went. Initially we were taken to the Hinds County jail -- Hinds County is where the city of Jackson is situated -- fingerprinted, booked, mug shot, and we were put in what they call the bull pit. Not in -- not individual cells but into, a bullpen which really had a pothole in the middle of the floor for you to
- American Experience
- Freedom Riders
- Raw Footage
- Interview with Dion Diamond, 1 of 2
- Contributing Organization
- WGBH (Boston, Massachusetts)
- AAPB ID
- Dion Diamond was a student from Howard University on the Montgomery, Alabama to Jackson, Mississippi (Greyhound) ride, May 24, 1961.
- American history, African Americans, civil rights, racism, segregation, activism, students
- (c) 2011-2017 WGBH Educational Foundation
- Media type
- Moving Image
Release Agent: WGBH Educational Foundation
- AAPB Contributor Holdings
Identifier: barcode357601_Diamond_01_SALES_ASP_h264 Amex 1280x720.mp4 (unknown)
Identifier: cpb-aacip-15-4b2x34nj5n.mp4 (mediainfo)
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- Chicago: “American Experience; Freedom Riders; Interview with Dion Diamond, 1 of 2,” WGBH, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (GBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC, accessed October 2, 2022, http://americanarchive.org/catalog/cpb-aacip-15-4b2x34nj5n.
- MLA: “American Experience; Freedom Riders; Interview with Dion Diamond, 1 of 2.” WGBH, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (GBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC. Web. October 2, 2022. <http://americanarchive.org/catalog/cpb-aacip-15-4b2x34nj5n>.
- APA: American Experience; Freedom Riders; Interview with Dion Diamond, 1 of 2. Boston, MA: WGBH, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (GBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC. Retrieved from http://americanarchive.org/catalog/cpb-aacip-15-4b2x34nj5n