Many people remember the courageous civil rights activists who in the early 1960s risked their lives to challenge Jim Crow laws by riding racially integrated buses into the South. But few people know that southern universities expelled dozens of these young people for participating in what are now remembered as the “Freedom Rides.”
To atone for these politically motivated expulsions, which denied activists their college degrees, at least six southern universities have granted former activists honorary degrees. Having denied these young people the opportunity of an education, it was the least they could do.
But “The New South” doesn’t include Tennessee State University, which has refused to grant honorary degrees to 13 African American students who were expelled in 1961 for their participation in the freedom rides. On March 28, the governing board of the university, formerly called Tennessee A&I State University, voted against awarding honorary degrees to them.
In the words of the local paper, the Tennessean, the Regents expressed their concern “about denigrating the value of an honorary degree by awarding so many at one time and recognizing a ‘one-time act of courage’ with what is intended to be a life-achievement award.”
“There is something sacred about an honorary degree,” Richard Rhoda, executive director of the Tennessee Higher Education Commission, told the newspaper. “The board, in their judgment, did not feel like this was an instance where you should grant an honorary degree.”
U.S. Representative John Lewis (D-Georgia), who as a Freedom Rider suffered serious physical beatings from mobs, was among those who wrote to Tennessee Governor Phil Bredesen and the Regents, asking them to award the honorary degrees to the former students. “Unfortunately,” he wrote, “more than two people were required to tear down the walls of legalized segregation. It took nothing short of raw courage for the hundreds of participants in the movement to stand up to the governor, mounted police, tear gas, fire hoses, attack dogs, and yes, even their colleges and universities.”
Faced with such pressure, a board spokesman, Mary Morgan, told the press that the university would organize and host a special event to honor the Freedom Riders, and would create a new honor, the Regent’s Medallion, for the expelled students.
Nashville was a major scene of student-led protests. When black and white Freedom Riders arrived in Nashville, mobs attacked and beat them. In response, Nashville students reorganized the Freedom Rides into Mississippi, where they were arrested and imprisoned. While in jail, the Nashville students received letters notifying them that they would face expulsion, a ruling that had just been created by Governor Buford Ellington, who boasted proudly of his segregationist views. As a result, T.S.U. expelled the students who had participated in the Freedom Rides.
The current president of T.S.U. has voiced very different sentiments from his board. “I think this campus feels as if these students are an inspiration,” he observed. “Their place in history is tremendous during a very dark period in this nation’s history. This was a good time to rectify those wrongs.”
And that is precisely what Vanderbilt University and Fisk University did; they denounced their decision to expel former students for participating in the civil rights movement. At T.S.U., however, no denunciations or apologies have been made to date. There the Freedom Rides are still not over.
Ruth Rosen, a journalist and historian, teaches at the University of California, Berkeley. She is author of The World Split Open: How the Women’s Movement Changed America (Penguin 2006).