VOICES: An original Freedom Rider welcomes the Freedom Ride for Voting Rights
On June 24, the Black Voters Matter Freedom Ride for Voting Rights made a stop in Charleston, West Virginia. Among the speakers at the rally there was Joan C. Browning. Now a writer and lecturer who lives in Lewisburg, West Virginia, Browning was one of the original Freedom Riders who in 1961 challenged segregated transportation in the Jim Crow South. This is the full text of her prepared remarks, with several hyperlinks added for additional context and clarity.
Greetings, Black Voters Matter Freedom Ride for Voting Rights. Thank you for including West Virginia in your journey. Thank you, too, for remembering our 1961 Freedom Rides.
In the 1960s civil rights movement, we sang:
They say that freedom is a constant struggle,
They say that freedom is a constant struggle,
They say that freedom is a constant struggle,
O Lord, we've struggled so long,
We must be free, we must be free.1
Freedom is indeed a constant struggle.
Sixty years ago, we Freedom Riders challenged a reluctant United States federal government to enforce sacrificially obtained Supreme Court rulings and Interstate Commerce Commission orders. White supremacist state governments that were elected by refusing the right to vote to African American citizens said of those federal rulings: You and what army gonna make us obey? 436 of us in 62 small groups were that army. As historian Raymond Arsenault wrote, we Freedom Riders "appeared to court martyrdom with a reckless disregard for personal safety or civic order. None of the obstacles placed in their path — not widespread censure, not political and financial pressure, not arrest and imprisonment, not even the threat of death — seemed to weaken their commitment to nonviolent struggle."2
Indeed, one of the many poignant moments in the 2011 documentary "Freedom Riders" has U. S. Attorney General Robert Kennedy asking his point man John Siegenthaler, "Who the hell is Diane Nash?" Kennedy told Siegenthaler to order Diane Nash to end the Freedom Rides. Siegenthaler recalls that phone conversation: "And … soon I was shouting, "Young woman do you understand what you are doing? Do you understand that you're gonna get somebody killed?" After a long pause, Diane Nash replied: "Sir, you should know, we all signed our last wills and testaments last night [before they left on the bus for Birmingham]. We know someone will be killed. But we cannot let violence overcome nonviolence."3
And so it was our custom to write our last will and testament the night before embarking on our Freedom Rides. We were determined sit together even if it cost us our lives.
Freedom Riders were arrested in many places and on various charges. On my Freedom Ride, we were told that we were charged with "conspiracy to overthrow the government of the State of Georgia." The charges against us were reduced to the more mundane "refusing to obey a police officer" and "disturbing the peace." So Freedom Riders were jailed, some for as long as 60 days. Because I was the only white female arrested on my Freedom Ride, I was alone in a jail cell. Many historians have been intrigued by the collections of notes we wrote to each other on paper towels and toilet paper. These are in the archives at Emory University.
We Freedom Riders were the nonviolent army that won. Arsenault wrote: "Within six months of the first [Freedom] Ride, travelers of all races were sitting side by side on buses and trains all across the nation without fear of arrest, the WHITE and COLORED signs that had blighted the walls of Southern bus and train stations for decades were gone…"4
What put a white Southern woman on the Albany Freedom Ride? Georgia enforced laws that made it a crime for white and black friends to "socialize." Nevertheless, Black Paine College drew us together for a Student Christian weekend through the 1940s and 1960s. I attended in 1961. There, I met Black students that I admired and who befriended me, and who led me into the sit-in movement. On my first sit-in demonstration with Paine College students, the Paine student leader was stabbed in the chest. Watching his blood puddle under him made it clear that protesting racial segregation was serious, even deadly. After getting my college scholarships withdrawn because I worshipped at Wesley Chapel African Methodist Episcopal Church, I moved to Atlanta and found the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. These were people I wanted to be like. People I wanted to be among. People who remain lifelong friends, especially Julian Bond. Four who were on the Freedom Ride with me: Norma Collins, Lenora Taitt-Magabune, James Forman. And that friendship required us to break the state laws against "fraternization."
Today you are making a second "Freedom Ride" into West Virginia. We did not come here in 1961 — didn't need to — but you and we stood on the shoulders of the 1947 Journey of Reconciliation. Journey riders took a train from Cincinnati through the Mountain State to Roanoke. I can't find details, but they seem to have spent an unremarkable night of April 19-20, 1947, in West Virginia.
One of my neighbors in Greenbrier County, who came to public attention as one of the "Hidden Figures" whose math genius helped get men to the moon and back, writes about her experience in public transportation. In May 1937, 19-year-old Katherine Coleman, later Johnson, graduated from our alma mater, West Virginia State, with double majors in math and French. She returned to her parents' home in White Sulphur Springs while she searched for a job. Carnegie Elementary School in Marion, Virginia, called her to teach grades four through six. Hear this from her memoir:
"Just before I left, Mama issued this warning: "Remember, you're going to Virginia."
In our minds, Virginia was the real South. So in other words, she meant, "Remember your place and act accordingly."
I responded flippantly, "Well, tell them I'm coming!"
Soon I was aboard a bus and on my way. Just as Mama had warned, it didn't take long for me to realize that I had crossed the line into Virginia. The bus came to a stop abruptly, and the driver shouted some orders: Negroes to the back of the bus. We had been interspersed with whites on the bus, but as routinely as getting off at the appropriate stop, all of the Negroes stood and moved to the back, as a few white passengers moved closer to the front. I watched in stunned silence and followed suit. Later, when it was time to change buses, the white passengers were allowed to board a new bus, but the driver shouted my way, "All you colored folk, come over here!" I pretended not to hear him until he softened his tone. The buses did not go into the colored side of town, he said. Negro passengers then had to pay a taxi or find another way to get where we were going. Everyone seemed to know the rules, and a few Negro taxi drivers were waiting. I climbed into one of the cars and headed into my future.
Segregation certainly was not new to me, but I was not accustomed to such blatant racist and rude behavior. I refused to let it bother me, though. I just stared out the car window and watched this new town unfold before me.5
I heard similar stories in interviews with African Americans in Greenbrier County. Mrs. Pearl Carter was one of several who told me that when they took the train from White Sulphur Springs to Richmond, they would board the "nice" or "white" passenger cars. Seven miles toward Richmond, at the top of Allegheny Mountain which is the Virginia State line, they had to move to the "colored" passenger car. On the return trip, they rode through Virginia in the "colored" passenger car to the top of Allegheny Mountain, and then joyously moved to the "white" passenger car. "It was just those few miles," Mrs. Carter said. "But it meant the world to us to be first class passengers even for those few miles."6
So West Virginia got it right, at least in public transportation, as far back as the 1930s.
Suffrage, the right to vote, is also a constant struggle. Thank you for carrying on that struggle to assure that Black votes count. In one of those Southern byzantine stories, my first vote — when I was 18 — was monitored by the Federal Bureau of Investigation. In a test to see whether our votes were counted, in that heavily Democratic Party place my mother and I and several others voted for Republican Richard Nixon. Even with FBI monitoring, 14 election officials were charged in federal court with voter fraud and four of them served federal prison sentences. So suffrage, the right to vote and have my vote count, has also been a constant struggle.
Sadly, it is entirely appropriate that you include West Virginia in this Black Votes Matter Freedom Ride. West Virginia is now firmly in the voter suppression camp. The majority, even super majority, of our state elected officials, our three congresspersons and our U.S. senators are on the side of shrinking the citizens allowed to vote, and for those who are allowed to vote, to have their votes counted.
It was not always so. In voting, as in public transportation, for many years West Virginia provided leadership in expanding voting rights. Back before I was born, in 1941, West Virginia U.S. Sen. Harley Kilgore offered a voting age amendment to the U. S. Constitution, which would lower the voting age from 21 to 18. He was joined by then West Virginia Congressman Jennings Randolph. Sen. Kilgore said that nearly 90% of the approximately 7 million Americans between 18 and 21 were contributing to the Second World War effort. They deserved to vote on the policies that drafted them into wartime military service.
This national amendment failed in 1941, but voters in one state, my birth state of Georgia, in 1943 did amend its state constitution to lower the voting age to 18.
West Virginia confounded many pundits in 1960 by overcoming what was widely thought to be our anti-Roman Catholic prejudices to support John F. Kennedy in the Democratic presidential primary.
Decade after decade, West Virginia U. S. Sen. Jennings Randolph pushed for a voting rights amendment to the U. S. Constitution. By Aug. 12, 1969, he had 67 senators cosponsoring Senate Joint Resolution 147, proposing an amendment to the Constitution extending the right to vote to citizens 18 years of age and older. His efforts stalled.
Meanwhile, pressured by the Freedom Riders and other civil rights efforts, the U. S. Congress passed the Voting Rights Act of 1965. With the 18-year-old vote amendment stalled, in 1970 U.S. Sen. Ted Kennedy got an amendment to that 1965 Voting Rights Act which lowered the voting age for federal offices to 18. Of course this was challenged by Oregon and Texas in the Supreme Court, which ruled in December 1970 that the law was valid for federal elections but not for state elections. Now states would be forced to provide two systems of voter registrations and elections, one for federal offices and one for state and local offices.
The next year, 1971, West Virginia's Sen. Randolph got 86 senators to co-sponsor the 26th Amendment, The Right to Vote at Age 18. The amendment needed ratification by 38 states; it was quickly ratified by 42 states. North Carolina became the 38th state necessary to ratify the amendment on July 1, 1971. West Virginia was 27th. South Dakota finally ratified it 43 years later, March 4, 2014. Seven states — Florida, Kentucky, Mississippi, Nevada, New Mexico, North Dakota and Utah — have never ratified the 26th Amendment.
Section 1. The right of citizens of the United States, who are eighteen years of age or older, to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of age.
Section 2. The Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.
Where are we now?
West Virginia has come a long way, sadly in the direction of suppressing votes, especially Black votes. Black voices are not welcomed or heard in the state government or in state political party circles. We are seeing rapid erosion of the gains made by all of us who grabbed what the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. called the "arc of the moral universe" and helped bend it more toward justice.
Using our past for guidance, I have three suggestions.
Go outside the dominant political parties, as we did with the 1964 Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party. The 1968 Georgia Loyal National Democrats sent a delegation to the Chicago convention where Julian Bond was nominated for vice president. And where all hell broke loose, with police riots all over Chicago.
Second, solve the anxieties about voter identification. We already have a national identification program, the Social Security number. It seems simple to amend the Social Security Act(s) to make our Social Security card our voter registration card, at least for federal elections.
And third, our founding documents proclaim that we waged the American Revolution to separate from Mother England to attain "no taxation without representation." So let's make it national policy that no jurisdiction can tax any citizen to whom it denies the right to vote. No taxation without representation.
These changes, I believe, would simplify and open suffrage to all citizens over the age of 18.
We have no time to waste. Thank you, Black Votes Matter Freedom Ride. Thank you for understanding that West Virginia has lost its leadership, has lost its way, and needs to join you to assure that Black Votes Matter. For all of us and for our children, we must succeed.
1. Many people claim authorship. The song clearly arose in the 1960s in the U.S. Civil Rights Movement. Guy and Candie Carawan credit the Freedom Singers © 1964. https://www.riseupandsing.org and http://www.african-american-civil-rights.org.
2. Raymond Arsenault, "Freedom Riders: 1961 and the Struggle for Racial Justice."
3. Stanley Nelson Jr., producer, "Freedom Riders," a documentary film for PBS American Experience, citing a conversation between Seigenthaler and Nash on May 16, 1961. Based in part on Arsenault's book "Freedom Riders."
5. Katherine Johnson, with Joylette Hylick and Katherine Moore and with Lisa Frazier Page, "My Remarkable Journey: A Memoir."
6. Interviews of Mrs. Pearl Swann Carter by Joan C. Browning, from 1993 up to Nov. 3, 2004, in Browning's possession.
Joan C. Browning is a writer and lecturer who lives in a double wide mobile home on a hillside in West Virginia. Her autobiographical writings include an article published in the Fall 1996 Journal of Women's History, "Invisible Revolutionaries: White Women in Civil Rights Movement Historiography" and "Shiloh Witness," published in Curry, Browning, et al., "Deep in Our Hearts: Nine White Women in the Freedom Movement" (University of Georgia Press, 2000).