On Tuesday afternoon, the Rev. Reginald Green stood in the Dwight Hall library, gesturing at a book.
“Here is my arrest,” he said, pointing at his June 7, 1961, mug shot. “And here is the picture of my wife getting the autograph of Martin Luther King Jr.”
Green spent the afternoon chatting with a group of 15 Yale students in the Dwight Hall Library about his experiences as a Freedom Rider in 1961. Though Green is in New Haven primarily for a special panel program at the New Haven Free Public Library on Wednesday about the 1961 Freedom Riders in Mississippi, he took a detour to address Yale during his visit this week.
The Freedom Riders were civil rights activists who had intended to ride interstate busses from Washington, D.C., to New Orleans in 1961 to promote civil rights, but were made to stop in Jackson, Miss., by racist mob and police action. Green was among the more than 300 riders jailed there.
“Human evolution is so global that we need to not let this story go untold,” Green said of the Civil Rights Movement. “We need to have, for historic purposes, people who were there to tell from their perspectives.”
In his 90-minute narrative, Green told the students of his personal involvement in the Freedom Riders movement, and how he didn’t even tell his own parents that he was leaving college to join the Riders to fight for civil rights. He said his environment, education and faith shaped him to become a Freedom Rider, and that there is a continuing need to pay attention to civil rights, such as gay and abortion rights.
In relating his own experiences, the modest Green said he played a small part in the Civil Rights movement on the whole.
“My role was miniscule, but each role is like a spoke,” he said. “In a wheel, you need so many to roll.”
Amid those spokes were both men and women, blacks and whites, students and adults, and Green said that he was jailed in Jackson along with a few Yale students, too. Among the riders was William Sloan Coffin DIV ’56, the Yale University chaplain from 1958-’75, who organized busses from New Haven and participated in sit-ins and demonstrations.
The attendees said they found themselves enchanted with Green and his story.
“It’s inspiring to hear from someone who at 21 was fighting for African-American rights and is still fighting for rights, and also to see how far this country has come and far we can go,” said Ashley Edwards ’12.
Green even managed a little name-dropping. Notables included singer Marvin Gaye, a tenor in the junior-high singing group that Green led, and King, who personally thanked Green after Green was released from jail in 1961.
Throughout his talk, Green stressed the importance of history and historical precedent to his listeners.
“I feel it’s my job to tell this story continuously so you understand all the benefits you have,” he said. “You are beneficiaries of a great legacy of struggles, sacrifice and commitment.”
Green, along with other Freedom Riders, will be attending the New Haven Public Library’s program at 6 p.m. Wednesday night, which centers on the recently-published book by Eric Etheridge, titled “Breach of Peace: Portraits of the 1961 Mississippi Freedom Riders.”