“Before I begin, one caveat: I am not here to advocate for going to jail,” said Janet Braum-Reinitz during her recent talk at Mount Saint Mary College.
But, she notes, her arrest as a Freedom Rider was one of many that helped to advance civil rights in America during the turbulent 1960s.
Braum-Reinitz discussed her time as a Freedom Rider, her motives for joining the civil rights movement, and the various forms of racial segregation that she encountered and worked to eradicate.
Growing up in a suburban New York neighborhood, Braum-Reinitz first became aware of racial segregation when her family discussed Jackie Robinson’s debut as the first African American baseball player in the National League. Soon, she began to notice the racial divide between neighborhoods throughout the United States.
Unhappy with her job at the time, Braum-Reinitz decided to become a Freedom Rider for the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), an organization that aided in the 1960s civil rights movement. Braum-Reinitz would ride around the United States by bus to protest racial segregation, but before she was allowed to make her first trip, she needed to be trained on how to carry herself and on how to handle any potential dangers she may encounter.
She was taught to check her pockets and pocket book for anything that could be construed as a weapon. “And you’d be surprised what they see [as a weapon],” Braum-Reinitz noted. “If your pencil was too sharp and they wanted to get you, a sharpened pencil would be good enough.”
Freedom Riders were told to wear little to no jewelry, and wear nylon stockings with a skirt and low heeled shoes. “They wanted you to appear as very ordinary people,” Braum-Reinitz explained.
In the event she was thrown to the ground, she was trained on how to ball herself up in a way that protected her head and vital organs. She was also trained on how to make her body go limp. If done correctly, it would require double the strength to lift her, making it more difficult to escalate a violent situation.
When the time finally came for Braum-Reinitz to go on her first Freedom Ride, she received a less than warm welcome upon arrival in Little Rock, Ark. Greeted by a mob and charged with disturbing the peace, the Freedom Riders deemed it best to accept arrest rather than face the mob. After their court hearing, she and her fellow Freedom Riders were forced to leave Little Rock.
But that experience paled to what happened upon the riders’ arrival at their final destination, New Orleans, La., where they were met with a much more terrifying threat. As they approached the area’s Ku Klux Klan headquarters, the riders noticed snipers perched on adjacent buildings. They were quickly approached by a young man who told them to leave and that their lives were in danger. “It turned out the Ku Klux Klan was ready to do whatever,” said Braum-Reinitz.
Though it was a harrowing experience, it was also one that helped to shape not only who she was as a person, but also the attitude of the American people as a whole, she said.
The event was sponsored by New Art Brut, a Newburgh N.Y. organization looking to build a permanent cultural and educational presence in the area.