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MU professor shares Civil Rights story

The Parthenon

Published: Sunday, December 9, 2012

Updated: Sunday, December 9, 2012 22:12

Martin Luther King Jr., Medgar Evers, Malcolm X; America’s civil rights movement in the 1950s and ’60s produced leaders that live on in the innumerable history books read in classrooms every day. The sacrifice and the influence of these illustrious individuals, and dozens of other similarly known names, are remarkable. All three galvanized a population not content to keep the status quo and go slow. Of course they met resistance, each was assassinated before they turned 40.

While you cannot overstate the importance of such leaders in the struggle, you cannot forget that without followers, a leader is useless.  The real story of America’s civil rights movement was written by the multitudes of obscure peaceful protestors, sympathizers and agitators and that endeavored through the years seeking the summit of equality.

Joan Browning is one of those thousands.

A co-professor of history at Marshall this semester, Browning has been able to share her experiences with dozens of students in David Trowbridge’s history classes.

As a girl living in a white section of rural Georgia in the 1950s, the nearest black neighbor lived almost six miles away, Browning was inspired by the Soviets to study mathematics.

“I was a teenager when Sputnik went into space,” Brown explained. “Sputnik was the first time that there was something up there twinkling that God hadn’t made, that man had made.”

Her mind was made up, and she wanted to go to Georgia Tech and study engineering. Her plans changed, though, in those days Georgia Tech did not admit women. Undaunted, Browning headed for Georgia State College for Women, where she majored in physics.

“I had no thoughts whatsoever about joining the civil rights movement,” Browning said.

Things soon changed.

Accustomed to the smaller “country churches” of her youth, Browning soon found herself sitting, uncomfortably, in a 1,000 member congregation at the Methodist church near campus.

Around this time Browning met a black preacher who invited her to his church.  She went, and found the atmosphere and seating capacity of the black church more accommodating than the 1,000 member mega-church, so she went again.

Some of the townsfolk got their sensibilities offended though. A white college girl going to church with black people was just one of those things. In fact the tumult was big enough that Georgia State College for Women dismissed Browning, despite high grades and apparently good standing. The school even charged her with being a Communist.

After being expelled, Browning went to Atlanta, found a job and got settled. Riled about her recent history, Browning became involved with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC).  The organization that had been protesting and staging sit-ins at segregated establishments across the South.

“They were just smart, attractive people and I wanted to be one of them,” she said.

Soon the SNCC would be involved in the Freedom Rides on public interstate transportation across the South.

Though segregation on public transportation was not federally legal, the law was not always enforced.  Small groups of integrated Freedom Riders, half white and half black, rode interstate buses to challenge the illegal segregation that often took place.

The first group of Freedom Riders came under attack from the Ku Klux Klan  who attacked and firebombed the bus while blocking its windows and exits. Still the Freedom Riders persisted and Browning was soon to be one of them.

The SNCC sent nine riders to Albany, Ga, a Jim Crow stronghold. Six prior attempts to test desegregation laws on Albany buses had already failed.

Browning’s boyfriend at the time was to go as one of the nine, but he was at college on an ROTC scholarship. A ticket to Albany, Ga., could have easily turned into a ticket to Saigon.  At the last minute Browning went in his place.

“I was actually the very last person to go on the last Freedom Ride,” she said.

They went to Albany and were welcomed to the city by a group of police officers who promptly placed them under arrest.  Browning and the rest were charged with conspiring to overthrow the state of Georgia.

“At 19 I had no idea how to do that,” she laughed.

Eventually, the charges were dropped to refusing to obey a police officer.

When the nine arrived at Albany, a police officer apparently told them to step off the street and onto a sidewalk. Browning, however, was not even standing in the street when the officer issued his decree. She was already in a taxi and on her way.  Regardless she and the others were arrested.

It was actually her arrest that revealed to her family that she was involved in the civil rights movement. While watching the news that evening, Browning’s mother saw her daughter on television, being arrested.

In her time Browning experienced being expelled from college, evicted from her apartment for having black company, countless sneers, going to jail and being charged with conspiring to take down the government, all that before she was old enough to drink.

The civil rights movement in America had a thousand faces. Browning’s is one who has seen the progression from assigned water fountains to a black president, something she did not believe her generation would ever see.

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