The U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Boynton v. Virginia (1960) gave travelers the legal right to disregard local segregation ordinances regarding interstate transportation facilities. But it was the ruling itself which was blatantly disregarded by local segregationists who refused to relinquish their “whites only” signs and other vestiges of discrimination in bus terminals and train stations throughout the South.
It was this fervent disregard for the law which called the Freedom Riders into action. Led by the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), and inspired by the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., hundreds of students and other activists rode interstate buses into the segregated South to assert their rights. During the initial rides in May 1961, the riders, who were armed only with their commitment to nonviolent protest, were met with nonstop violence and persecution. The buses were frequently intercepted by mobs and riders were brutally attacked. When the buses were able to arrive at their destinations without incident, riders were arrested for violating local segregation ordinances – a direct violation of the Boynton decision.
Throughout the summer of 1961, more than 60 different Freedom Rides took place across the South. It is believed that nearly 450 individuals participated, with more than 300 being arrested. Included in those numbers were 14 students from Tennessee State University. They were members of the Nashville Student Group, a local group of students who had successfully desegregated the city’s lunch counters and movie theaters.
What were the Freedom Riders able to accomplish? In September 1961, bowing to public pressure, the Kennedy Administration finally convinced the Interstate Commerce Commission to issue another desegregation order. The new policies took effect November 1, 1961. As a result, passengers were allowed to sit wherever they pleased on interstate buses and trains, “white” and “colored” signs were removed from terminals, separate drinking fountains, toilets and waiting rooms were consolidated, and lunch counters served ALL customers regardless of skin color.
What did the TSU Freedom Riders receive for their courageous efforts? They were expelled by the university under a year-old law created during the administration of Tennessee Governor Buford Ellington, an avowed segregationist. The students were informed of the ruling via letter while they were still incarcerated in Jackson, Mississippi. Afterwards, a number of people – both black and white – picketed the Tennessee State Capitol on behalf of the Freedom Riders, and sought an audience with Governor Ellington. Their request was denied.
Vindication is seldom swift. Instead, it often takes months, even years. For the 14 TSU Freedom Riders, it has taken nearly half a century. After much debate and public outcry, on April 25, 2008, the Tennessee Board of Regents (TBR) reversed an earlier decision and agreed to award honorary Doctor of Humane Letters to the 14 students (four will be awarded posthumously). In doing so, TSU was given the opportunity to not only right a grievous wrong, but also, in the words of TSU’s President Dr. Melvin Johnson who helped lead the efforts to recognize the Freedom Riders, “will serve to remind this generation of students of a time when young people were willing to risk reputations, careers, their freedom and their lives for a higher cause.”
Fifty years later, the bravery of the Freedom Riders show us the numerous contributions that students of TSU have made to society to bring about positive change that influences us today and our future leaders of tomorrow.
Original published in the Big Blue Issue