In 1961, Ernest "Rip" Patton Jr. was a 21-year-old drum major in the Tennessee State University marching band. He made history that year, but it wasn't for swinging a baton.
He was part of a group that would come to be known as the Freedom Riders. They were nonviolent protesters — men and women, black and white, young and old — who boarded buses and risked their lives to challenge Jim Crow laws in the segregated South. On Tuesday, Patton told U.S. history students at Countryside High School what life was like when black people were prohibited from eating at lunch counters and fully using public facilities. He stressed the importance of the nonviolent protests.
"What we did in the '60s, we did for you," said Patton in his deep, serene voice. "We did it for our generation and generations to come.
"Now I want to ask, what are you going to do for your generation?"
Patton is 72 now. His hair is snowy white. But his memories are still vivid and he's eager to share them as he travels around the country, speaking to everyone he can — from students in an auditorium to talk show hosts including Oprah Winfrey.
The stop at Countryside High was one of 13 planned visits to Pinellas County schools this week. The Freedom Rider talks were arranged by Linda Whitley, supervisor of the school system's social studies department.
In June, she and 28 other Pinellas County teachers retraced part of the route of the Freedom Riders through four Southern states, visiting museums and historical sites along the way. The trip was made possible by a federally funded Teaching American History grant. During the trip, she and the others got to know Patton and invited him to speak.
During his talk, the Nashville resident recounted how black people and their white supporters were beaten, bullied and imprisoned during the Freedom Rides in 1961.
They didn't fight back because they had been trained to be nonviolent. Following the teachings of India's Mahatma Gandhi, they learned that peaceful protest, love and forgiveness were much more powerful weapons than hate and conflict.
"Being nonviolent makes you a better person than being violent," Patton told the students. "You have to love that person that hits you. You have to love that person that makes fun of you."
The Freedom Riders dealt with threats and acts of violence by reading the Bible or singing freedom songs like this one Patton shared with his young audience, who joined in clapping and singing:
Ain't gonna let nobody turn me around
Turn me around, turn me around
Ain't gonna let nobody turn me around
I'm gonna keep on a-walkin', keep on a-talkin'
Marchin' down to freedom land
In 1961, the U.S. Supreme Court had already prohibited segregation in interstate public transportation facilities, but the rulings were widely disregarded in the Deep South.
After a particularly violent attack on Freedom Riders by Alabama Ku Klux Klansmen, Patton and other student activists from Nashville decided to organize another Freedom Ride, this time under the protection of National Guardsmen equipped with rifles and bayonets. On May 24, 1961, they boarded buses in Montgomery, Ala., and headed for Jackson, Miss.
There, they walked through the front door of a bus station where a sign read Whites Only. They sat at a lunch counter and were arrested for "breach of peace." Patton would spend more than 45 days in the notorious maximum-security penitentiary known as Parchman Farm.
The Freedom Riders dealt with the harsh prison conditions by singing their songs of solidarity. Prison guards attempted to silence them by taking away their mattresses and blankets, so they learned to sleep on steel.
As their defiant singing continued, the guards upped their punishment, Patton said. Laxatives were put in their food. The water to flush toilets in the cells was shut down and the heaters were turned up.
When officials at Tennessee State learned Patton and other students were in prison for participating in the rides, they were expelled. He didn't care. He knew he and others had important roles to play in the civil rights movement.
That year, hundreds of others would join them, board buses and enter bus stations, and sit wherever they liked. About half were black and half were white. Three-quarters were men. Forty percent were college age. They came from 39 states and 11 countries, according to Patton.
Five months after the first Freedom Ride, U.S. Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy issued a tough order banning segregation at all interstate public facilities.
Patton would go on to help desegregate grocery stores in Nashville. He became a jazz musician and later, a professional truck driver.
Now, he continues his activism by helping to tell the story of the Freedom Riders.
"All of you are brothers and sisters," he told Countryside students. "You might not think so, but you are. And you have to come together as one to make something work. That's what we did."
After Patton's talk, William Hartwick, a white student, went up and shook his hand.
"I thanked him for doing what he did," the high school junior said.
And what did the former Freedom Rider say in return?
"He wants me to let him know what I'm doing in 20 years."