Dr. Ernest “Rip” Patton

By Emmanuel Freeman

NASHVILLE, TN (TSU News Service) — Ernest “Rip” Patton, a former TSU student and member of the 1960s Nashville Freedom Riders, passed on August 23. The University is remembering Patton as a stalwart of the civil rights movement who dedicated his life to fighting for equality and justice for people of color.  

Patton was buried Friday in Nashville after homegoing celebrations at Gordon Memorial United Methodist Church. He was 81. 

TSU President Glenda Glover said Patton was unyielding and showed remarkable courage in risking imprisonment, injury and even death to ensure that blacks were treated fairly. 

“From his days as a student at Tennessee State University and throughout his life, Dr. Ernest “Rip” Patton was steadfast in his fight for equality and justice for African Americans,” President Glover said. “We remember him for his courage and determination to bring hope to past, present and future generations in our country and the world. The TSU family is deeply saddened about his passing but will remember him with great pride as an alumnus that made a tremendous sacrifice to make difference.  We send our heartfelt condolences to the Patton family on their loss.” 

Patton participated in the downtown Nashville civil rights sit-ins in 1960, a movement that eventually led to the desegregation of the city’s lunch counters and other public spaces. At 21 and a student at the then Tennessee A&I, Patton was among the first wave of Freedom Riders to arrive in Jackson, Mississippi, on a Greyhound bus to force the desegregation of interstate transportation facilities. The group was arrested upon arrival. 

Dr. Jerri Haynes, Dean of the College of Education, presents Dr. Ernest “Rip” Patton with an award in recognition of his contribution to the fight for equality and justice as a Freedom Rider.

After the group’s release from prison, Patton and 13 other students were expelled from A&I for participating in the Freedom Ride, and never got to finish their degrees.  

Nearly 47 years later, in 2008, TSU granted the students honorary doctorate degrees. The Tennessee Board of Regents initially refused to grant the honorary degrees, but then TSU President Melvin Johnson insisted that the former students’ “extraordinary achievements” were worthy of recognition.

“These degrees serve to remind this generation of a time when young people were willing to risk their reputations, careers, freedom and lives for a higher cause,” Johnson said. 

According to the Freedom Rides Museum in Montgomery, Alabama, Patton later went on to be a jazz musician, while also remaining a vocal advocate and educator in the civil rights movement. He returned to his alma mater on occasions to talk to students about his experience as a Freedom Rider. 

At a Black History Month celebration on February 17, 2020, the College of Education honored Patton with an award for the contributions he made to the cause for equality and justice as a Freedom Rider. 

Linda Fair, coordinator of field placement and clinical experience in the TSU Department of Teacher Education and Student Service, knew Patton for more than 45 years when they sang together in the choir at Gordon Memorial United Methodist Church. Fair was also instrumental in bringing Patton to speak to students in the College of Education. 

“Rip was passionate about speaking to young people and trying to inspire them as far as the diversity that is needed in this country and all over the world,” said Fair, whose husband, John Fair – former CEO of the Urban League – was in the movement with Patton. “His (Patton) goal was to remind young people about the history of African Americans in the United States and what they went through.” 

Dr. Ernest “Rip” Patton is survived by son, Michael (Bernadette) Patton; grandchildren, Alyxa Mae and Dante’ Andrew Patton; niece, Michelle (James) Holt; nephew, Charles (Debra) Patton; and other relatives and friends.