By Alan Bean
For the past few days, we have been attending a human rights conference in Philadelphia sponsored by the U.S. Human Rights Fund. We have learned a lot and met so many inspiring individuals it is a bit overwhelming. But the high point of the conference, for me, was a chance encounter with Dianna Freelon Foster of Grenada, Mississippi.
Grenada, you may recall from an earlier post, was the site of the most heroic, dreadful, awe-inspiring and anonymous civil rights campaigns in American history. Nobody knows about Grenada. Everybody should.
Dianna Freelon Foster was going into the eleventh grade in the fall of 1966 when the civil rights community decided it was time to integrate the public schools. Every night, hundreds of people would gather at a church near the courthouse square to sing freedom songs, pray and preach. Then, in the power of the Holy Ghost, they would march to the courthouse and take a stand for civil rights. And when morning came, the first day of school, hundreds of black children had the audacity to show up at the all white schools of Granada, Mississippi.
“We walked into the school the first morning, ” Dianna remembers, “and the first thing I noticed was how beautiful it was–nothing at all like the black school I had been attending. It was a very tense atmosphere and you had the feeling something was wrong. Then, one by one, all the white girls were called to the office. I remember thinking ‘there was no way all those white girls can fit in that tiny little office’.”
When all the white girls had left the building, the black girls were informed that the school was closing for the day. “We walked out the door,” Dianna recalls, “and all I could see was a bunch of white men, some of them sitting in the branches of the trees, and they were all carrying weapons: baseball bats, tire irons, that sort of thing. We tried to rush back into the school but the principal locked the door on us. That’s the thing that really hurt me–that a human being could do something like that–locking us out when he knew we were in danger.”
“We were walking with a male student and we were trying to get to the church, because that’s where we felt safe and strong. Then the men surrounded us. They were pushing and prodding us girls, but it was the boy who received the real beating. They would have left us pretty much alone, but every time we tried to help our friend who had been horribly beaten, they’d start beating us up too. I guess I blocked it all out of my mind. For a long time I didn’t remember much about it. But then, years later, I talked to my mother and my brother, and they told me how awful it really was.”
The public schools of Grenada were not integrated in 1966. Or 1967. Or 1968 or 1969.
The Grenada movement has been forgotten because it did not achieve its objective; but nowhere in America did a community come together in such an emphatic and disciplined fashion behind a human rights agenda.
Dianna Freelon Foster wants to talk about the past. She made a successful run for mayor of Grenada a few years ago because she wanted to help her community come to terms with its painful history. Most of the most prosperous majority white neighborhoods had formed separate municipalities for the usual reasons, but when Ms. Foster was elected mayor these communities were quickly re-annexed by the city of Grenada and Foster was defeated.
“I’m the racist because I want to talk about the past. Well, I need to talk about it. Everybody does, but they just want to forget and move forward. Most of our black children have no idea what happened in our community. Their parents don’t want to think about it. We all just live as if all the ugliness never happened. But it did; and we need to deal with it.”
The next time Friends of Justice sponsors a civil rights tour in Mississippi we’re going to Grenada and Dianna Freelon Foster will be our tour guide.