Freedom Riders who made civil rights history speak on campus for MLK celebration

By Janel Shoun on 1/5/2011

   
   

 

Freedom Group Hangs Signs on Bus.
New York: Members of a group called "The Washington Freedom Riders Committee" hang signs on the side of bus parked near the crossroads cafe at Times Square here May 30th, before leaving for Washington, D.C. (c) Bettmann / Corbis
 
 
 
On Wednesday, Jan. 12, Dr. Bernard LaFayette sat in a Nashville airport waiting area and struck up a conversation with two white students from Lipscomb University. “The Chelseas” he called them because they both have that first name. They told him about their college experience and their excitement about the coming semester.
 
(l to r) Ray, LaFayette and Smith speak to students.
Such a conversation would not have been possible 50 years ago, when LaFayette, an African American, struck out from Nashville to Birmingham, Ala., on a passenger bus as one of the Freedom Riders, a collection of student activists who boarded buses in 1961 to ride across state lines to challenge Jim Crow laws in the South.
 
Back then, LaFayette also sat in terminal waiting rooms – the “whites only” waiting rooms of Greyhound and Trailways bus stations. And instead of striking up conversation with white students, he was beaten and arrested.
 
LaFayette used the story during his talk on Thursday, Jan. 13, to praise Lipscomb University and today’s generation for the advancement it has made in the past 50 years in race relations. “I know a good thing when I see it,” he said, referring to his positive impression of Lipscomb students.
 
But it is up to today’s students to pick up the torch of social justice and keep carrying it, he said. When the students of today get the chance they should, “Get on the bus!” Lafayette advised. “And if you can go around the world, get on a plane!”
 
LaFayette was one of three Freedom Riders who spoke at Lipscomb during the university’s celebration of Martin Luther King Jr. Day 2011, highlighting the 50th anniversary of the Freedom Rides. From Jan. 11-20, the university is also hosting a variety of student service projects; student participation in the Nashville Civil Rights March; a showing of Freedom Riders, a PBS documentary; and a birthday party for MLK.
 
On Jan. 13, LaFayette spoke in Lipscomb’s weekly convocation, The Gathering, and was on-hand to answer questions and speak with students later, along with two other Freedom Riders, Etta Simpson Ray and Jean Smith.
 
The Office of Intercultural Engagement, along with students in Kappa Iota Theta, the student multicultural club, also organized a reenactment of a 1960s civil rights activist rally (complete with a passenger bus and protesters opposing integration and equal rights) and a historical display of Ray and Smith’s mementoes and artifacts from the Nashville Public Library Nashville Room.
 
LaFayette, now a distinguished visiting scholar and consultant of the Center for Nonviolence and Peace Studies at the University of Rhode Island, spoke often of Nashville’s unique role in the civil rights movement. As one of the few places with black civic leaders, white student activists who worked with the black activists and many pioneers in nonviolent protest, Nashville became a nexus for civil rights activity and nonviolence education he said.
 
The first Freedom Ride began with 18 Riders heading out from Washington D.C. on May 4, 1961. On May 16, when that group canceled their Ride after a violent bombing in Anniston, Ga., and days of rioting and tension in Birmingham, Ala., students in Nashville took up the cause and selected 22 people, including LaFayette and Ray, to continue the Rides.
 
LaFayette described how volunteering to be a Freedom Rider was equivalent to a “death warrant.” “Going on the Freedom Rides was something considered so dangerous, that you weren’t expected to survive,” he said.
 
“We were Spirit-led,” he said of the Nashville Riders, who drafted their own wills the night before boarding the buses for Birmingham. “In fact we took more action than we did thinking. We acted our way into thinking, because we knew it was the right thing even though we couldn’t articulate it.”
 
Bernard LaFayette
LaFayette made it to Jackson, Miss., where the Freedom Riders were swiftly arrested, tried and sent to Parchman State Penitentiary. After that, buses loaded with Freedom Rides continued to make their way to Jackson through early June, with the intent of filling the prisons and keeping attention focused on the civil rights issue.
 
Ray and Smith arrived in Jackson on these later Rides and were also promptly thrown into jail and then prison. Smith described for students how Parchman State Penitentiary was difficult for her because she couldn’t sing songs and talk with her fellow activists. In Parchman they were separated into small groups, and held in cells within sight of Death Row.
 
“Sometimes life takes you down detours and dead ends,” Smith told the students, “but hopefully if you started in the right direction, you’ll end up in a safe destination.”
 
 
 
Six of the 1961 Freedom Riders attended the Lipscomb event honoring the 50th anniversary of the Freedom Rides. (l to r) Matthew Walker, Mary Jean Smith, Etta Simpson Ray, Allen Cason, Bernard LaFayette and Rip Patton.
 
 
 
 
 
MLK Week Service Projects
 
Lipscomb University is providing service opportunities for students until Thursday, Jan. 20. Click here to register online for any of these service projects.
 
MLK March on Jefferson Street
Monday, January 17, 2011
10 a.m.-Noon
On Monday, Jan. 17, 2011, students will participate in the city-wide MLK commemorative march on Jefferson Street.  
 
 
Jefferson Street
Beautification Project
Monday, January 17, 2011
2-4 p.m.
Students will participate in the Jefferson Street Beautification Project in the Jefferson Street community near Tennessee State University.
 
 
Tennessee Immigrant and
Refugee Rights Coalition

Tuesday, January 18, 2011
2-4 p.m.
446 Metroplex Dr. Building A,
Suite 224 Nashville, TN 37211
 
The Tennessee Immigrant and Refugee Rights Coalition (TIRRC) is a statewide, immigrant and refugee-led collaboration whose mission is to empower immigrants and refugees throughout Tennessee to develop a unified voice, defend their rights, and create an atmosphere in which they are recognized as positive contributors to the state.
 
 
ThriftSmart
Wednesday, January 19, 2011
2:30-5 p.m.
4890 Nolensville Pike, Nashville 37211
 
ThriftSmart exists to provide value to customers, opportunity for employees, and benefit to charities by operating the best thrift stores in the world and promoting thrifty living – all for God’s glory.
 
 
Hobson House
Wednesday, January 19, 2011
3-5 p.m.
 
 
For questions or for more information on any of these events, contact Tenielle Buchanan at the Office of Intercultural Engagement at 615.966.5264.