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Tuesday, 17 February 2009 03:27

Joan Wile: 60's freedom rider now protests war with the Granny Peace Brigade

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by Joan Wile

At the tender age of 22 in June 1961, Joan Pleune left the University of California at Berkeley and embarked on an extremely dangerous venture on behalf of the civil rights movement. Riding on integrated buses and trains throughout the racist South exposed one to the potential for beatings, jail, and even death. Yet Pleune, with her sister Kathy, risked all that because of the strength of her principles. Honestly, how many of us then would have done the same?
Luckily, she was neither beaten nor killed, but she did spend a number of weeks in jail. After riding the rails from California to New Orleans, she took another train to Jackson, Mississippi, where she was arrested in the station waiting room. Pleune doesn't remember the details of the arrest but recalls that she wasn't frightened. "I don't know why I wasn't scared. I still don't know. I knew about the bus bombings in late May in Anniston, Alabama, and I should have been frightened, but somehow I wasn't."
Joan was sentenced to six months in prison and taken to the Hines County jail where she, very tanned at the time and thought to be African-American by the arresting authorities, was separated from her sister and herded with three black women into a windowless storeroom. Anticipating a long incarceration in this cramped and airless space, Joan finally felt the cold stab of fear. But she was soon moved into a big cell with 41 other women. There was one toilet. Mattresses on the floor were the sleeping accommodations. They were actually ensconced in an area in Death Row, and could hear the doomed inmates from behind a wall. They attempted to communicate with them and even tried to share their food (an inedible blend of lima beans and lima beans) after they learned that Death Row prisoners were barely fed.
After being released early after six plus weeks, Joan returned to Berkeley and got a degree in psychology. She took California state tests for social worker and probation officer positions; though she scored second highest, she was unable to get a job. She assumes the State of Mississippi had a hand in sabotaging her job search. She went to New York City and became a caseworker until she began her family. She bore three children, the last at the relatively advanced age of 43 as a single mother. Beginning in the mid-1980's, Joan began work as a site advisor for adult literacy programs in three New York City public libraries, where she worked until she retired three years ago. At that time, she learned on television of the Granny Peace Brigade action in which 18 women were arrested and jailed when they tried to enlist in the military at the Times Square recruitment center. Joan thought, "This is for me. This is how I'll spend my wind-up years." Appealing to her persistent youthful rebellious spirit, she was spurred to join the grannies and has been one of their most active and daring members ever since. Her protests have led her to more jailings and innumerable protests. Her most recent incident was in Washington DC where she was part of a group arrested for hanging five banners from the Hart Senate Office Building protesting the U.S. policies in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Gaza.
The story of the brave Freedom Riders lay somewhat dormant through the years until a book, Breach of Peace: Portraits of the 1961 Mississippi Freedom Riders by Eric Etheridge, was published in 2007 and the vital history was resurrected for a new generation. Since the book's release, Joan and other Freedom Riders have participated in public forums about the landmark civil rights episode, and Smithsonian magazine printed a story in their February 2009 issue about the book featuring a dramatic photo of the current Joan. Pleune, a modest person who shies away from the limelight, nevertheless has found it exhilarating to be recognized as a significant player in such a crucial event in U.S. history.
When asked recently what compelled her to risk life and limb for the sake of integrating the South, Joan said, simply, "I couldn't not." This expression exemplifies the courageous and committed spirit of the Granny Peace Brigade. Granny bonnets off to Joan Pleune, Freedom Rider.


Joan Wile
New York City