Brief explanation of this program: We have about 40 people, including Stetson Law, Stetson undergrad, USF undergrad, grad students, and people from the community (such as WMNF) on a charter bus following the path of Freedom Riders from Nashville to Memphis, Anniston, Birmingham, Montgomery, Selma, and Atlanta. Professor Bickel from Stetson Law, Professor Sapp from Stetson-DeLand, Professor Arsenault from USF, and Rip Patton (a Nashville-born Freedom Rider) are accompanying us on this whole tour.
Today, we visited Tennessee State University, Fisk, Nashville Public Library, and Vanderbilt, where we had the privilege of listening to a panel of six Freedom Riders. They graciously accompanied us to a restaurant, where we shared dinner.
Memorable thing #1: Rip Patton got a bunch of students to sing Freedom Songs at the Fisk Memorial Chapel.
They sang, and the rest of us clapped (and I immediately found out that I, a rhythmically challenged person, can’t keep up with clapping and singing at the same time): “Buses are coming, oh yea, better get ready, oh yea, you can take my mattress, oh yeah”–“woke up this morning with freedom on my mind…hallelu–hallelu–hallelujah.”
The voices coalesced in the building, rising, falling, surrounding the room like some kind of a secret, precious thing to which only we were privy.
Memorable thing #2: The Freedom Riders panel. It’s one thing to see these people in documentaries, but seeing them is a huge difference. It’s the difference between hearing your favorite food described and actually eating it. One gets to pick up on many nuances of the personalities amongst this tightly knit group. I wondered what the Riders thought of each other, but of course, that’s not information that they would share.
We split up in for dinner, with one Rider per group. Matthew Walker was at our table, along with his son and future daughter-in-law. Mr. Walker seemed troubled: he was hurt by the way people remembered his history, by the fact that Nashville did not have a museum honoring its Civil Rights history, and he told us he was no longer nonviolent (“nonviolence is unamerican”). I told him that we cared about what he had to say, that we were listening–he looked at me critically, and gave me a list of 14 or so things to google. I promptly lost the sheet, but I think “FEMA coffins” was one of the phrases.
I remembered that dinner when I saw Mr. Walker’s picture in many of the museums that we later visited: a photograph of a wide-eyed 19-year-old Freedom Rider (below, first one on the left). I asked him if he remembered any good parts about the Rides. He told us he couldn’t really think of anything.