Local Commentary

Our Man in Arlington

clark-fcnpThe current Arlington Magazine includes a haunting photo, tossed in almost marginally as part of a timeline of county history.

The image (available here) is of black civil rights activist Dion Diamond sitting on a counter stool at the old Cherrydale Drug Fair, engaging in a sit-in to protest segregation, on June 10, 1960.

The brave protester, calmly reading a newspaper, is surrounded by a pack of white teenagers – slicked-back hair, Elvis sideburns, T-shirts, some guys grinning, some with menacing nonchalance alongside a few curious bystanders.

The image jarred me because at the time I was right across Lee Highway finishing first grade at the since-closed Cherrydale Elementary School. The photo credited to Washington Star photographer Gus Chinn captures that lost soda fountain world. In the background, you can see telephone booths and shopper signs for books and tobacco. Those white kids circling around Diamond staring down the “outside agitator” could have been guys I encountered in my neighborhood.

I tracked down Dion Diamond, now 72, semi-retired as a Washington-based financial planner. He suggested that I Google his work in the civil rights movement, and I learned from a website called the Washington Area Spark that he was a field secretary for the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee in Mississippi and Louisiana from 1961-63. He was arrested more than 30 times, and famed radical Stokely Carmichael (later Kwame Ture) wrote him up in his memoirs.

Diamond cut his teeth doing anti-segregation sit-ins Arlington when he was a 19-year-old Howard University student, one of 13 in the integrated Non-Violent Action Group. Working up Lee Highway over a two-week period, they sat in at the People’s Drug Store at Old Dominion Drive (now a CVS) and the Drug Fair then at Lee-Harrison shopping center.

They were refused service at most, then arrested for trespassing at the Howard Johnsons then at 4700 Lee Highway. They then moved on to Maryland, helping integrate Glen Echo Amusement Park.

“Howard was supposedly the epitome of black colleges,” Diamond told me. “D.C. then was [de jure] desegregated. But all you had to do was cross over the district line to Maryland and Northern Virginia to find de facto segregation.”

Once the protesters sat at the lunch counter, they were harassed or pelted with cigarette butts. At one point during the Cherrydale event, American Nazi Party leader George Lincoln Rockwell traveled the few blocks from his Arlington headquarters on Randolph Street and arrived with his swastika-wearing minions to add their own style of intimidation (attracted, no doubt, by the news cameras).

Diamond said while he knew Rockwell by name, he didn’t know the kids, who seemed young. “I stared at them and they stared at me,” he said. (Guessing that the white teens might be Washington-Lee High School students, I forwarded the photo to some alumni from that period. No one recognized anyone.)

Within days of the protest, the Arlington restaurants gave in and desegregated.

Was Diamond scared while executing the sit-ins? “Actually no, because the presence of camera people and reporters made me feel somewhat confident throughout my civil rights activities,” he said.

But after I forwarded him the recently published photo, he wrote back by email, “This is truly a photo which I do not remember! Had I been in that environment, I would have been insane not to have been frightened!”