Civil rights activist Joan C. Browning will be a speaker at an upcoming East Texas Historical Association event, The Georgiana and Max S. Lale Lecture. The event will be held this Thursday at 7 p.m. in the Baker Pattillo Student Center Grand Ballroom and is open for the public.
Each October, in conjunction with the East Texas Historical Association Annual Fall meeting, the ETHA hosts the dynamic lecture series event, which will also have several inspirational speakers and leaders in attendance.
Browning was one of the white civil rights activists who joined black activists in riding interstate buses to the south starting in 1961, fighting for the enforcement of the Supreme Court decisions “Morgan v. Virginia” and “Boynton v. Virginia” to desegregate public buses. She will be discussing her involvement in the movement at the upcoming lecture, and letting the public know exactly what it takes.
“It took courage,” Browning said. “I was on the last Freedom Ride, the 62nd. We knew how the other Freedom Riders had been treated — busses burned, Riders beaten with lead pipes, jailed, some on Death Row. So, we knew we could be hurt or murdered. But, it needed to be done. We looked in the mirror and said, ‘Somebody needs to do this — why not me?’”
Not long before her ride, Browning recounted in her 2006 article, “Freedom Riders,” that the first thirteen freedom riders boarded two busses heading from Washington, D.C. to New Orleans in May of 1961. Those riders were met with horrific acts of terrorism as their busses were burned, and they were beaten by those who opposed the movement. These incidents were a lot to consider, but Browning and other activists boarded the bus despite it all. Browning said that participating in the movement had serious consequences. However, she and the other riders were calmed by the support of their community.
“When we were arrested in Albany, Georgia, the local black folks were so supportive that I knew that this is want I needed to be doing at that time,” Browning said. “I have sought and seldom found that perfect assurance that I was exactly where I needed to be doing exactly what I needed to be doing with the exact people I needed to be doing it with.”
On sharing her experience with the citizens of Nacogdoches, Browning expressed excitement for the familiar.
“I am a small town and country girl by choice,” Browning said. “I prefer small towns. I've lectured twice at the University of Texas at San Antonio and once at University of Houston at Victoria, and was warmly received all times. My impression of Texas’ audience is very encouraging.”
Executive Director of the ETHA Dr. M. Scott Sosebee was eager to share how he felt about Browning being one among those leaders.
“I am excited to have Ms. Browning as our 2019 Lecturer,” Sosebee said. “It is rare that our campus community gets to hear from someone who participated in such a monumental piece of history. She is a living ‘primary source.’ The Freedom Rides were a turning point in the nation's struggle for civil rights, one of the events that eventually led to the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.”
Sosebee also mentioned why he feels these lectures are important for the community.
“As generations pass, memories and experiences fade,” Sosebee said. “Yes, you can sit in a class and hear about events in the past, but I think that the impact is sometimes lost. When people such as Ms. Browning speak about how they were beaten, jailed, spit upon and inhumanely abused just because they wanted to gain full civil rights, it allows all of us to almost be there with them. That is a powerful message.”
Browning, having recently recovered from serious health issues and “thanking the miracles of modern medicine,” is keen on being able to share her experiences in the hopes of inspiring future generations to stand up for other causes.
“That's my entire point in talking about what [I and others] did in the 1960s — to try to see if there's anything there that people can keep on using to bend that moral arc of the universe more toward justice,” Browning said. “I am never content that I've succeeded in distilling relevant lessons from our past. But, gosh, we did bend that moral arc, so there may be lessons in there somewhere. My main message is that we were ordinary people, and it is ordinary people, organized and together, who make changes.”