Former Tennessean editor John Seigenthaler shared with participants how as a member of the press during the civil rights movement, he and his family were often targeted by hate groups.
by Joan Brasher
Four Gray Line buses idle noisily at the curb by Branscomb Quadrangle as the sun slowly rises over a sleeping Greek Row. A group has quietly gathered on the steps out front – a mix of students, faculty and staff – shouldering overnight bags and sipping cups of coffee while members of the media prepare to capture their departure.
Clearly, this is not just any trip. The group will ride from Nashville, Tenn., to Montgomery and Birmingham, Ala., retracing the Freedom Rides of 1961, which were part of the movement that led to the end of segregation in the South. What’s more, several of the original Freedom Riders will join the group to share their experiences first-hand along the way.
The idea to retrace the Freedom Rides in a two-day “rolling seminar” was sparked by Ray Arsenault’s book Freedom Riders: 1961 and the Struggle for Racial Justice. The trip, hosted Jan. 27-28 by Vanderbilt’s Office of Active Citizenship and Service and The Commons, attracted nearly 200 participants, including undergraduate and graduate students, faculty and staff from Vanderbilt, Fisk and Tennessee State universities and American Baptist College.
Vanderbilt Chancellor Gordon Gee, Fisk University President Hazel O’Leary, TSU President Melvin Johnson and Nicholas S. Zeppos, Vanderbilt provost and vice chancellor for academic affairs, also made the trip.
James Lawson, a key proponent of the civil rights movement while a divinity student at Vanderbilt, shared his experiences with Freedom Ride 2007 participants. It was under his tutelage that many of the original riders received training in the principles of non-violent protest.His participation in the movement, as well as the workshops he taught on non-violent protest, earned him expulsion from Vanderbilt in 1960.
Though the ensuing national media uproar and threats of mass faculty resignations resulted in Vanderbilt’s offering to reinstate him, Lawson chose to complete his studies at Boston University. The 78-year-old’s association with Vanderbilt came full circle last fall when he agreed to return to the university as Distinguished University Professor.
Also on hand for the trip were Freedom Riders Diane Nash, Jim Zwerg, Bernard Lafayette, C.T. Vivian and Rep. John Lewis, D-Georgia. The bus traveled first to Montgomery for lunch with colleagues at Troy State University and a panel discussion at Dexter Avenue King Memorial Baptist Church, where Martin Luther King Jr. served as pastor from 1954 to 1960. The group then visited the Montgomery bus terminal where the 1961 Freedom Riders were attacked.
Freedom Rider Diane Nash came to Fisk University from Chicago in 1959. She had originally planned to become an English teacher, but those plans changed when she encountered blatant segregation and racism for the first time and sought counsel in one of Lawson’s workshops on non-violent protest.
“It made it impossible to attend another class on Chaucer,” she said. “Jim Lawson’s workshops were life-changing. Few people understand non-violence. It’s not just ‘turning the other cheek.’ It’s a powerful tool for change.”
She began organizing sit-ins at Nashville lunch counters, which involved a very organized and disciplined approach. “We developed a dress code, because we knew that people would say, ‘I don’t want to sit at a lunch counter with dirty, smelly Negroes.’ The men wore suits and ties and you would not believe the difference that made. In the press, they would refer to us as ‘the well-dressed Negro students.’”
Going along with racism, she said, meant agreeing that African Americans were inferior. “I wasn’t willing to do that. We took great pains to be clear we would not accept segregation, but we viewed the opponent as sisters and brothers worthy of our respect.”
Later in the day, the 2007 delegation traveled to Birmingham, where the participants stayed overnight. At dinner, the Freedom Riders continued to share their experiences with participants.
Congressman John Lewis grew up on a farm outside Troy, Ala. “I saw signs that said ‘white men, colored men’; ‘white women, colored women.’ I went to the movie theater and all the black children had to sit in the balcony. My parents said, ‘That’s just the way it is, don’t get into trouble.’”
His message to participants couldn’t be more different.
“If you believe in something, go for it. Organize. Speak out,” he said. “We don’t have time to hate. We need to teach the way of non-violence. The way of peace.”
The next morning, the group gathered for breakfast and a question-and-answer session.
Veteran journalist and former editor of The Tennessean John Seigenthaler said he could remember sitting on a city bus as a child and watching a black woman get on, struggling with her packages. “My mother had taught me to give a lady my seat, but it would never have occurred to her, or to me, to give up my seat to a black lady. It seems hard to believe there was ever a time when that plight was invisible to me, but it is so.”
Seigenthaler went on to play an important role in the civil rights movement and the Freedom Rides.
When he served in the Justice Department as assistant to Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy, he was sent to Montgomery to mediate the escalating tensions between the Nashville-based Freedom Riders and state officials. As he attempted to help some female Freedom Riders who had been attacked, he was bludgeoned with a lead pipe, rendering him unconscious.
“The Freedom Rides changed the character of the South, but I am not a Freedom Rider. I am only a footnote in history,” he said. “I shed my blood that day by accident.”
The Freedon Ride 2007 participants visited the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute, where they saw emotionally charged exhibits depicting the reality of racism that existed in Birmingham and throughout the South in the 1960s. The Freedom Riders toured the museum, sharing their thoughts and reflections.
Alex Kruzel, a Vanderbilt College of Arts and Science senior from Chicago, is studying English literature. She plans to enter the Peace Corps and go to Mozambique before entering law school to pursue a degree in international human rights. She first learned about the Freedom Rides when Lawson came to campus last fall.
“I was so impressed with what he had to say,” she recalled. “He really moved me. As a student activist on campus … there are so many valuable lessons that I cringe to see fade before my generation. I want to grab onto them and apply them to things like the living wage campaign. I will take with me a more thorough understanding of non-violence and universal love.”
Before heading back to Nashville, Gee addressed the participants. “I am honored to be here – I am more than honored. Of all my experiences in my seven years at Vanderbilt, this experience has been the most powerful. The Freedom Riders and all of you around them have turned this into a spiritual journey for me.”
The participation of fellow Nashville institutions TSU, Fisk and American Baptist College was in keeping with the spirit of the trip, he said.
“We are together as one group of people who believe in one cause,” he said. “One can learn from history, but if we only look at it and say, ‘That was interesting,’ we have failed. By learning from these experiences, we will succeed.”
On the return trip, Lawson encouraged participants to question U.S. governmental policies. “The nation that needs non-violence the most right now is the United States,” he said. “The religious group that needs the most help in practicing non-violence is my own, Christianity. We must not return evil with evil. Violence doesn’t solve problems; it just encourages more violence in the world.”
Gbemende Johnson, a Vanderbilt first-year graduate student in political science from Atlanta, said meeting the Freedom Riders left her awestruck.
“When I try to put myself in their place, it seems so scary – going somewhere, knowing you may die,” she said. “They say they are ordinary people, but you can’t help but stand back and just say ‘wow.’ When you listen to what they have been talking about, you don’t really have an excuse not to get involved. Caring is not enough. You have to do something.”
Mark Dalhouse, director of the Office of Active Citizenship and Service, was pleased that the students were challenged to take on their own causes.
“This weekend commemorated and honored the Freedom Riders,” he said, “but I think what has come out of it is that we have been too quiet. You can’t have a program like this and expect the status quo to continue – you can’t. You’ve let the genie out of the bottle.”
Video, audio and a photo gallery are available on VUCast at www.vanderbilt.edu/news.