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Bill Maxwell

A degree of gratitude

Few Americans will recognize these names: Catherine Burks Brooks, Charles Butler, Allen Cason Jr., William E. Harbour, Larry F. Hunter, Frederick Leonard, William Mitchell Jr., Ernest Patton Jr., Pauline Knight Ofosu, Etta Simpson Ray, Mary Jane Smith, Frances Wilson, Clarence M. Wright and Baba El Senzengakulu Zulu (formerly Lester G. McKinnie).

They are the names of the 14 students at historically black Tennessee Agricultural and Industrial State University (now Tennessee State University) who joined the 436 other people from around the nation and became known as the Freedom Riders.

On Thursday, Tennessee's Freedom Rider 14, as they became known, will be awarded honorary doctorate degrees of humane letters at Tennessee State's Fall Convocation. These honors are long overdue.

The Freedom Riders boarded Greyhound and Trailways buses in the nation's capital and traveled to the Old South in 1961 to test the viability of a recently passed federal ruling that declared segregation in public transportation unconstitutional.

In many bus stations, such as those in Birmingham and Montgomery, Ala., the riders faced angry mobs of white supremacists. Riders were punched, kicked and clubbed, and one bus was disabled and firebombed. This period is considered one of the most dangerous periods of the civil rights era, because many white law enforcement officers were Ku Klux Klansmen who supported the attackers and did not help the black victims.

Worldwide attention and the Freedom Riders' acts of courage shamed the United States, especially the White House of President John F. Kennedy, into listening to the voices of protest that were coalescing everywhere against Jim Crow laws that marginalized an entire race and compromised the democratic ideals of white America.

When the 14 students joined the six-month movement, TSU expelled them. Some were within a few months of graduating. When the rides ended, the participants were not re- admitted to school, and they virtually faded from history. TSU officials and professors rarely mentioned the 14 students and their expulsion.

"Only among former Freedom Riders, especially those from Nashville, did the expulsions remain a live issue," said Raymond Arsenault, University of South Florida St. Petersburg professor and author of the 2006 book, Freedom Riders: 1961 and the Struggle for Racial Justice. "But even Nashville Riders harbored little hope that the wrongs of 1961 would be redressed or even acknowledged by university officials or other public authorities."

The publication of Freedom Riders brought the first hope that the 14 would be honored, rather than further punished, for their heroism. The book initiated a July 2006 landmark civil rights tour sponsored by the Stetson University College of Law and the University of South Florida, led by Arsenault and Stetson professor Bob Brickel.

During the tour, Arsenault met with John Seigenthaler, a former Justice Department official and the director of the Seigenthaler Center at Vanderbilt University, and George Barrett, a civil rights attorney who had been active in Nashville since the 1950s. Arsenault brought the idea of awarding honorary degrees to the expelled TSU students. Seigenthaler and Barrett embraced the idea and discussed it with other leaders. Seigenthaler lobbied TSU's president, Melvin Johnson, and members of the Tennessee Board of Regents.

For nearly two years, the regents, citing procedural obstacles, balked at approving a resolution to award the degrees to the TSU 14. But as public support for the resolution grew and the press began picking up the story, the regents changed their minds last April.

"The granting of the honorary degrees to the surviving TSU Freedom Riders offers them a measure of recognition and recompense after years of neglect and disrespect," Arsenault wrote in an e-mail statement. "Nothing can fully restore what was taken away from them in 1961 by a morally corrupt and racist power structure. But we should all be pleased that they, and we, have lived long enough to witness an expression of gratitude and profound respect for the acts of courage and conscience that they performed nearly a half-century ago.

"We can only hope that today's students, along with other Americans, will absorb some of the empowering lessons that the Freedom Riders' lives embody. They were among the finest and bravest Americans of 1961, and their legacy is no less than the grass-roots democracy that continues to sustain our still unrealized ideal of 'liberty and justice for all.' True heroes, they richly deserve the honors that will be bestowed upon them next Thursday."

Unfortunately, four of the Freedom Riders — Charles Butler, William Mitchell, Frances Wilson and Clarence M. Wright — did not live to receive their degrees.

A degree of gratitude 09/12/08 [Last modified: Thursday, September 18, 2008 8:49pm]

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