By Ronald W. Weathersby
Gloria Haugabook McKissack, an adjunct professor of American History at Tennessee State University has produced and directed a documentary in which Nashville’s Freedom Riders shares their thoughts and memories of the historic events that took place in 1961.
The historic Freedom Rides began in May of 1961 when 11 individuals left Washington, DC on public buses bound for the Deep South to test the Supreme Court’s ruling the previous year which declared segregation in interstate bus and rail stations unconstitutional.
The initial Freedom Riders from Washington, D.C. were civil rights activists who rode interstate buses into Birmingham, Alabama and were members of the KKK and fire bombed the buses The attack took place two blocks from Sheriff Bull Connor’s office. It took the United States Justice Department to intervene and the Freedom Riders were evacuated to New Orleans.
The students in Nashville were like no other college students in the South. Undeterred, the Nashville student movement asked the Nashville Southern Christian Leadership Conference (NSCLC) for their backing to resume The Freedom Rides. SNCC leader Diane Nash felt that if violence were allowed to halt the Freedom Rides, the movement would be set back years. After the Nashville Freedom Riders gained support on May 17, 1961, eleven Nashville students traveled to Birmingham and asked the bus company to let them use their buses. Attorney general Kennedy also pressured the bus company and the Birmingham police. Kennedy was determined to enforce the Supreme Court’s decision that called for integration of interstate travel, and he worried that if the Nashville students remained in Birmingham much longer, violence might erupt. On May 17, the Birmingham police arrested the Nashville Freedom Riders and placed them in protective custody in jail. At 2 AM on Friday, May 19, 1961, the police drove the Freedom Riders back to Tennessee, dumping them by the side of the highway in Ardmore, Tennessee. A Freedom Rider from Nashville drove to Ardmore and took the students back to Nashville, 100 miles away, and with much courage all of the students went right back to Birmingham.
Unfortunately being dropped off on the side of the highway wasn’t the only barrier Nashville students faced as they took leadership in the civil rights fight that summer.
“Several students were expelled from school,” says McKissack, who enrolled at TSU in the fall of 1961 after Freedom Summer. “Lots of students did not get involved because of the threat of expulsion. My parents in Detroit told me not to get involved. But people make individual choices. My parents almost came to get me once they found out that I was an activist.”
Although Nashville’s campus’ and the surrounding community was alive with the fervor of social and political change many historians tend to discount the role that Nashville played at the beginning of the movement. It was quite clear that Freedom Summer stayed viable as a direct result of Nashville area student’s activities. Nashville became the center of the Freedom Rides as scores of volunteers came to Nashville for non violent training.
However, McKissack says there was not a united front on campus.
“There were a lot of students that did not get involved because they could not turn the other cheek. They could not buy into the non-violent movement.”
McKissack said many students who lived on campus were hampered from getting involved because of curfew and other rules. McKissack believes some of the social organizations on campus should have been more of a force.
Although she was not on campus for Freedom Summer, McKissack participated in the downtown lunch counter sit-ins. She hopes her documentary will become a lesson for secondary school students in Nashville and across the country and encourage them to become activists also.
“I want the challenge students to carry on the legacy of the Freedom Riders,” McKissack said. “I want young people know they can make a difference. They have to have an objective and keep their eyes on the prize. Pick a cause and don’t give up on it.”
When Freedom Riders from Nashville reached Mississippi, there they were brutalized and jailed. The pictures of the violence coupled with local law enforcement indifference prompted a national out cry for support of the riders and Those acts only strengthened the resolve of those who felt compelled to change the country according to McKissack. However, the newsreels and graphic pictures served to inspire more Freedom Rides. By the end of the summer of 1961, the protests had spread to train and bus stations and airports across the South. That fall the Interstate Commerce Commission issued rules that prohibited segregated transportation facilities.
“We didn’t know we were making history,” declared McKissack. “But without the Freedom Riders civil rights legislation may not have been passed.”
Regina McCord was the assistant producer, and responsible for the filming of the documentary.
Gloria Haugabook McKissack and Lena Brown Prince are Co-Chairs of the 35th Anniversary of The Freedom Ride.
Note: Earlier this year the 50 year anniversary of “Freedom Summer” was celebrated at the White House by President Barack Obama and was commemorated by a much-watched special on the Public Broadcasting System (PBS).
Fact Checker: “The PBS documentary was somewhat misleading,” McKissack explained. “In that production they gave the impression that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was reluctant to join the Freedom Riders. Matthew Walker Jr. was present when Dr. Martin Luther King met with the Nashville Freedom Riders and King wanted to ride on the bus with the students but the Freedom Riders begged him not to go for safety reasons. They told him that he was too important and the trip was just too dangerous.”