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Rev. Reginald Green, 1939-2020

“I spent my 21st birthday in jail in Parchman.”

Reginald Green went to Mississippi as a Freedom Rider in the summer of 1961 without telling his parents.

I never asked my father and mother if I could go on the Freedom Rides, for fear that they would say no. Out of respect I would have honored their direction. So, rather than have to face that, I just decided that I would go.

Green, then a sophomore at Virginia Union, in Richmond, was an obedient son. But like so many of the black southern college students who streamed into Jackson in the first days of the Rides there, he was also a movement veteran. The year before he had taken part in the sit-ins at Richmond’s finest department store, Thalhimers, and other targets.

His trip to Jackson, like his sit-ins in 1960, was not however a product of any college radicalization. It was instead the result of his upbringing and education in Washington, DC, as well his father’s activist example.

My going on the Freedom Rides was no accident. It didn’t happen overnight. The experiences of my life, the challenges of growing up in the city, my educational training, the fact that I would get to hear many of these public figures like Howard Thurman or Mordecai Johnson when I was in junior high school and high school — my English teacher would take us to Howard to hear these important speakers. Benjamin Mays was president of Morehouse for years and we would go to hear him. This stuff gets internalized. And, then, of course, my father, along with many others, was very active in the Southwest Citizens’ Association, which was the reason why certain of the playgrounds began to open up to African-Americans students that, before, in the ’40s and early ’50s were closed off. 

Green eventually graduated Virginia Union in 1964, and then again in 1967 with a graduate degree in theology. He returned to DC and led the Walker Memorial Baptist Church until he retired in 2006.

When I interviewed him in 2007, he told me about the first time he felt afraid on the Rides, right before his Trailways bus arrived in Jackson.

I remember going into Mississippi. About five minutes before we got to Jackson, someone turned up the radio and this is what we heard: “There are some more niggers and more nigger-lovers — some of them damn Freedom Riders! — coming and they don’t know what kind of trouble they’re getting into.”

That was probably the first time that I really got frightened, cause it was just three of us on the bus. [Ray Randolph and Obadiah Simms, fellow students at Virginia Union, were on the same bus, but none of the three were sitting together, to avoid suspicion]. I was thinking, anything could happen.

“Anything” turned out to be several weeks locked up at Parchman Prison, a destination he has not anticipated.

I didn’t know much about Parchman. All I knew is once we got to the county jail [in Jackson] I heard the word “Parchman,” and I said, “Uh-oh [laughs]. Oh boy, maybe I should have studied more about Parchman before I left, I might not have come.”

The guards in Jackson told us we were being transferred and I figured we were just being transferred to another cell. Some of the other Riders, like Jim Farmer [the head of CORE, sponsor of the Rides] may have known or somebody may have known, but I don’t think all of us knew until we got there. I know it was a long trip. It was dark when we left [Jackson], it was day break when we got there.

I remember making the trip. They packed us all in a big van with only a little side window. The driver stopped somewhere along the way to rest, and then pulled his gun and said, “I ought shoot ya’ll’s so-and-so brains out.” All of a sudden everybody said, “Well, we still love you brother.” I remember that very vividly. 

Portrait of Freedom Rider Reginald Green
2007

I probably should have led this obit with the fact that in junior high, Rev. Green was the lead singer of a “little singing group, a rock-and-roll group, and the first tenor was Marvin Gaye.” He usually got to that fact pretty quickly in his talks, and why not? Did Marvin Gaye ever back you up? The group covered songs by the Ink Spots, the Ravens, the Orioles, the Spaniels, and others.  

I did a number of presentations with Green, including the first one for my book, in 2008, at the Smithsonian in DC. That program included a panel with Green and another Rider, Joan Trumpauer. A few questions in blanked on anything I could ask either of them. Panic! Finally my brain tossed up the memory of Green telling me about singing in Parchman. I asked, he was off, and I was saved.

I love music, so singing was a major part of my sanity [in Parchman].

Early in the morning you’d sing some or at night you’d sing or during the day you’d sing. And of course the jailers wanted you to stop singing.  They would tell you to stop singing those songs, be quiet back there. And we’d keep on singing. 

It was mostly just automatic, spontaneous. You’d start singing or I’d start something, everybody would join in. Or Farmer would start something and everybody would start singing, you couldn’t miss his booming voice. He had this deep, resonant voice. Farmer had a favorite one, “What side are you on boy, what side are you on?”

I always liked, “And before I be a slave I’ll be buried in my grave, and go home to my Lord and be free.” What we did was take the spiritual — cause the spiritual just says “and before I be a slave” and so on — then we just added a new first line: “No more Jim Crow, no more Jim Crow, no more Jim Crow over me, and before I be a slave I’ll be buried in my grave and go home to my Lord and be free.”

You just add whatever first line you wanted: no more dying, no more beatings, no more colored fountains, words like that.

I made many more presentations with Rev. Green over the years, and always asked him to sing that song. It always seemed the most real way to explain the Freedom Rides. All my words and photographs paled in comparison to this one voice singing the same lines he had once sung in his cell in Unit 7, Maximum Security, Parchman.

Maybe you can hear what I mean.

2013: Rev. Green sings “Oh Freedom” at a DC presentation. From left: Riders Hank Thomas, Dion Diamond (mostly obscured), Rev. Green, Joan Mulholland, and Rep. John Lewis.

‘I Was A Freedom Rider’

The Highwomen wrote a great verse about the Freedom Riders in their new song “Highwomen,” on the album of the same name. (On the album, the verse is sung by Yola.) I had all these mug shots and archival footage, so I made a video.

The Criminal Type

My wall of Freedom Rider mugshots and portraits at the “Criminal Type,” a show curated by Elizabeth Breiner and now up thru late October at ApexArt in lower Manhattan. ⁣⁣⁣

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At the top, the first 240 Riders arrested in Jackson, MS, in chronological order (by group). At the bottom, 120 profiles selected and arranged by me. In between, five portraits and bios from my book.⁣⁣⁣

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I loved making all of this, but at the moment I’m very partial to the profile mural. Shorn of their partners, the profiles turn out to be unexpected and surprisingly tender portraits. Freed of their police ID slates but unable to make a face for the camera, the Riders must offer themselves up undefended. The camera records portraits in curl, sideburn, and jawline, the cock of the head, the squaring of shoulders. ⁣⁣⁣

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Amassed, all moving in the same direction, the Riders are a movement, they are *the* movement, they are a portrait of the movement, they are a portrait of America in 1961.

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