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Robert McAfee Brown

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Robert McAfee Brown in Tallahasee jail

Freedom Rides

I was a Freedom Rider, Presbyterian Life, August 1, 1961

Two weeks ago today I was in jail.

Along with four other white ministers, three Negro ministers, and two Jewish rabbis, I was arrested for "unlawful assembly." The nature of our unlawful assembly was this: we were sitting in the lobby of the Tallahassee Air Terminal waiting to have a cup of coffee together before taking a plane for New York.

We had arrived at the terminal about twenty-four hours earlier, planning to leave on a 3:25 plane that afternoon. The airport restaurant had a sign on the door marked "Closed," although several people inside were eating. The restaurant manager would not admit us, for this was the afternoon of the monthly cleaning. He was most apologetic, but he couldn't open up again until 4:30.

At this point, our group had to make a decision. Originally eighteen strong, we had been traveling since Tuesday morning as members of an interfaith Freedom Ride, testing facilities for interstate passengers at bus terminals all the way from Washington, D.C., to Tallahassee, Florida. We were now at the last stop on our journey. Eight of the group had obligations back home of such a pressing nature that they had no alternative but to fly out on the scheduled flight. But ten of us decided to stay over and test the restaurant.

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Robert McAfee Brown and others leave Tallahasee Freedom Rides in Retrospect, The Grain of Salt, Union Seminary Newsletter, October 1961

I have been asked by the editor of the Grain to offer some reflections-in-retrospect about my participation in a Freedom Ride early this summer, What did I learn from those swift moving, dramatic and occasionally frightening episodes, that might have ongoing meaning for my understanding of Christian ethics and Christian faith? I shall try to speak honestly and I shall speak en famille, trying to sort out a few of the reactions that emerge after a passage of three months.

1. I must first point to a danger, of which the very writing of this article is an example. This is the danger of taking a stand in a particular situation and seeking to make spiritual capital out of it in lots of other situations. I have often remarked about the easy way we flabby American Christians use the East German Christians as a proof that Christian faith has vitality. I am afraid it is similarly easy to let isolated actions of our own get us off the hook of continued involvement. If someone says to me, "What are YOU doing about racial injustice?" I hope I will have the grace not to respond self-righteously, "Look, Mac, I went on a Freedom Ride." But it is painfully easy to let something that I did in June become a rationalization for doing nothing in October. That I did something for a few tumultuous days and nights, does not give me the privilege of disengaging myself for the next few tumultuous months and years, even if in my weary moments I wish it did. We cannot, in other words, let past involvements go bail for contemporary responsibilities; the most we can do is draw on the past involvements as resources for meeting contemporary responsibilities a little more creatively.

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Top Photo: Rabbi Israel Dresner, of Springfield, New Jersey, one of the nine clergymen jailed on a 60-day sentence rather than pay fines of $500 each, reads messages of support for their integration activities. The group was arrested in 1961 for a restaurant sit-in demonstration and have been free on $1,000 bonds. All but one of the white and Negro ministers are wearing regulation city prison clothing. Standing to the right from Rabbi Dresner are Reverend Petty D. McKinney from Nyack, New York; Reverend A. McArven Warner (only partly visible) from New York City; and Reverend Robert J. Stone from New York City. Seated is Dr. Robert McAfee Brown, faculty member of Stanford University. August 5, 1964. Description and photo courtesy of Florida Memory Project, State Archives of Florida.

Second Photo: These white and Negro clergymen elected to go to jail on a 60-day sentence rather than pay a $500 fine each. The ministers were arrested in 1961 when they refused to obey an order to end a sit-in at the airport restaurant. In a surprise court action they were set free after spending four days in jail on a 60-day sentence. From bottom to top are Rabbi Martin Freedman from Paterson, New Jersey; Reverend John W. Collier from Newark, New Jersey; Rabbi Israel Dresner of Springfield, New Jersey; Reverend Arthur L. Hardge from New Britain, Connecticut; Reverend A. McArven Warner of New York City; Reverend Petty D. McKinney from Nyack, New York; Dr. Robert McAfee Brown of Stanford, California; Reverend Wayne Hartmire, Jr. from Culver City, California; and Reverend Robert J. Stone of New York City. August 7, 1964. Description and photo courtesy of Florida Memory Project, State Archives of Florida.

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