The Civil Rights Activist Whose Name You've Probably Never Heard

Jan 12, 2018
Originally published on January 12, 2018 3:33 pm

Dion Diamond was sitting at a "whites only" lunch counter in Arlington, Va., in 1960 when a crowd started gathering around him. At the time, he was a young black man participating in a sit-in at a local five-and-dime store with a group of black and white university students, and they were drawing some attention from people who didn't want them protesting.

At one point, a white boy — maybe 12 or 13 — pointed his finger at Dion. He seemed to say, " 'Get out, you know you are not wanted here,' " Dion tells StoryCorps in Washington, D.C.

"I could only hope that as he got older, some of his attitudes regarding equality and equal rights changed," he says.

Dion, now 76, started doing sit-ins at 15. He grew up in the 1950s in Petersburg, Va., and says he grew tired of looking at the "whites only" signs. That's when he began what he calls "his own private sit-ins" at lunch counters, skirting out the back door whenever the police came. His family had no idea what he was up to — until the newspapers started calling his house.

"You know, like a reporter calls home, 'Do you know your son is in jail?' and my parents became very proud of me, but they wished it would have been somebody else's child," Dion says. "I've done some crazy things, but you take chances when you're young. I call it youthful exuberance."

By the time of his last arrest in Baton Rouge, La., he had been — as he describes it, a "guest" — at the jail there more than once.

"The white guards told these inmates, 'We got a troublemaker here, gang. If you give him a hard time, you may get time off for good behavior,' " Dion says.

Looking back, that was probably the time he was most frightened, he recalls. But some of the inmates knew who Dion was, and they issued a warning: Don't mess with him.

"That was my salvation," Dion says.

Today, if people see his name somewhere, they may not know who Dion is — and they likely won't, he says. His three grandchildren aren't all that interested in his story, either. But that doesn't matter.

"Any time I pick up a historical publication, I feel as if a period or a comma in that book is my contribution," he says.

Audio produced for Morning Edition by Afi Yellow-Duke.

StoryCorps is a national nonprofit that gives people the chance to interview friends and loved ones about their lives. These conversations are archived at the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress, allowing participants to leave a legacy for future generations. Learn more, including how to interview someone in your life, at StoryCorps.org.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

It's Friday, and it's time for StoryCorps. Among the most powerful images from the civil rights era are news photos of lunch counter sit-ins across the South, young African-Americans seated at a counter patiently waiting to order while circled by a hostile crowd of white people. The images may be famous but not necessarily the names of the protesters involved. As we head into the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday weekend, we're going to meet one of those protesters. His name is Dion Diamond. He grew up in the 1950s in Petersburg, Va. And at StoryCorps, he talked about how he got started in the civil rights movement.

DION DIAMOND: I was 15 years of age when I first started having my own private sit-ins. I guess I got tired of looking at signs that said whites only. So I would go into the five and dime store, sit at the whites-only lunch counter. And whenever the police came, I scooted out of the back door. My family had no idea. The only way they found out was from the newspapers, you know, like a reporter calls them, do you know your son's in jail? And my parents became very proud of me but they wished it would have been somebody else's child. I've done some crazy things, but you take chances when you're young. I call it youthful exuberance.

I can remember having a sit-in at the lunch counter in Arlington, Va. And word spread throughout the neighborhood. And that's when they started gathering around this child. I'd say he was about 12, 13 years old. He took his finger and pointed to me like, get out. You know, you aren't wanted here. I can only hope that as he got older, some of his attitudes regarding equality and equal rights changed. The last time I was arrested in Baton Rouge, La., I was their guest on more than one occasion. So the guards - the white guards - told these inmates, we got a troublemaker here, gang. If you give them a hard time, you may get time off for good behavior.

I think that was the time I was most frightened. Except a couple of the guys in there, they knew somehow who I was. And they told the guys, don't mess with him. That was my salvation. Today, when people read my name, they may not know who I am and most likely they won't. I have three grandkids. They aren't the least bit interested. But any time I pick up a historical publication, I feel as if a period or a comma in that book is my contribution.

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MARTIN: That's Dion Diamond for StoryCorps in Washington, D.C. You can see photos of him taking part in lunch counter sit-ins at npr.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.