How Freedom Rider Diane Nash Risked Her Life to Desegregate the South

How Freedom Rider Diane Nash Risked Her Life to Desegregate the South


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“Diane, you’ve gotten in with the wrong bunch.”

Those were the words that civil rights activist Diane Nash heard when her grandmother found out she was involved in the civil rights movement in 1960. Imagine her grandmother’s surprise when she found out that Nash wasn’t just involved, but was leading the charge of the Nashville student sit-ins. Later, in fact, she would go on to help coordinate the Freedom Rides.

The response of Nash’s family was one that many others would express throughout her journey: fear. And with the violence and discrimination that was rampant throughout the country in the 1950s and ‘60s, it’s easy to see why.

Nash was born in 1938 and raised in Chicago, away from the strong racial divisions that saw African Americans treated as second-class citizens under Jim Crow laws in the South. It wasn’t until she enrolled at the historically Black Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee, in 1959 that she came face-to-face with overt discrimination.

“There were signs that said white, white-only, colored. [The] library was segregated, the public library. Parks, swimming pools, hotels, motels,” she recalls. “I was at a period where I was interested in expanding: going new places, seeing new things, meeting new people. So that felt very confined and uncomfortable.”

Among the many facilities that weren’t available to Nash and her peers were restaurants that served Black customers only on a “takeout basis,” which meant they weren’t allowed to sit and eat inside. Instead, Black patrons were forced to eat along the curbs and alleys of Nashville during the lunch hour.

Nash couldn’t adhere to these rules. In her eyes, that would be agreeing with the unjust laws. But before she could take a stand against these restaurants—essentially protesting the government itself—she needed a plan of action. Enter Jim Lawson, an activist who had studied Gandhi’s nonviolent movement in India, and taught workshops on progress and change through nonviolence at a Methodist church near the university.

The spring after she enrolled at Fisk, just shy of 22 years old, Nash became a leader in the Nashville Student Central Committee, which organized sit-ins at discriminatory restaurants throughout the city. Faced with a fuming community that did everything in their power to remove the students, Nash encountered the frightening scenarios that she had prepared for during Lawson’s workshops.

Leading up to her first sit-in, in February 1960, Nash worried about being arrested. She’d voiced her concern in the workshops, saying that she’d help with phone calls and organizing but in the end, she would not go to jail. “But when the time came, I went,” she says, of the dozens of arrests she’d face in the not too distant future.

The success of the sit-ins on May 10 that year would make Nashville the first southern city to desegregate lunch counters in the country. But that was only the beginning for the young activist.

The same year, Nash traveled to Raleigh, North Carolina, to meet with other progressive students in the South and form the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). The organization would work with other major organizations within the Civil Rights Movement, including the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE).

In 1961, the Nashville Student Central Committee received a notice from CORE that they were beginning the Freedom Rides, a nonviolent protest to desegregate interstate bus travel and terminals that started in Washington, D.C., before making its way through southern states. The student activists offered to help in any way they could. It wouldn’t be long before they were called on to fulfill that request.

INTERACTIVE: Follow the Freedom Riders’ Journey Against Segregation During the Civil Rights Era

As the Freedom Rides went from one state to another, the participants found themselves in increasing danger from angry communities vehemently against the idea of integration. The aggression came to a head as the Freedom Rides reached Alabama. The buses were burned and the activists beaten on May 14, 1961, forcing them to retreat to New Orleans. From there, it was up to Nash to carry the torch with a new group of Freedom Riders.

“We recognized that if the Freedom Ride was ended right then after all that violence, southern white racists would think that they could stop a project by inflicting enough violence on it,” she says. “And we wouldn’t have been able to have any kind of movement for voting rights, for buses, public accommodations or anything after that, without getting a lot of people killed first.”

So Nash and her peers continued the Freedom Rides, despite the objections of many powerful people, including Attorney General Robert Kennedy. Kennedy had instructed his assistant, John Seigenthaler, to speak directly with Nash in an attempt to call off the Freedom Rides. With so much bloodshed in Alabama, he urged the chairwoman to back down from the violence that undoubtedly awaited them on the trail.

“People understood very well what could happen,” says Nash, who explained to Seigenthaler that the participants in the Freedom Rides had given her sealed envelopes with their wills, in the event of their deaths. “Fortunately, I was able to return all those sealed envelopes.”

The Freedom Rides concluded in the fall of 1961 with yet another victory for the Civil Rights Movement; the Interstate Commerce Commission made segregated bus travel and terminals illegal, effective November 1st. However, Nash’s strength would again be tested when she faced law enforcement later that year. And this time, she was pregnant.

In 1961, Nash was arrested for “contributing to the delinquency of minors” after encouraging young people to fight for desegregated buses in Mississippi. At the time, she was living with her husband, James Bevel, in Jackson. The couple, who met through activism, had been spreading a message of nonviolence within the community.

Nash’s attorney had wrongly advised her that she did not need to appear in court, which resulted in a warrant for her arrest. Six months pregnant at the time, Nash went to court to surrender to the authorities. She was facing a two-year prison sentence.

“When I surrendered, I sat in the front seat of the courtroom and the bailiff told me to move back and I thought ‘I [might be here] for two years, I’m not moving anywhere,’” she says. “So they charged me with contempt of court for refusing to move to the back.”

The contempt of court sentence lasted for 10 days. While in jail, the only thing on Nash’s mind was her unborn child. She was determined to do everything she could so that her child would enter a world that was equal for all Americans, regardless of race.

After serving out her sentence for contempt, the judge declined to hear Nash’s other case. Nash believes the federal government tapped her telephone line and listened in when she told organizations in the Civil Rights Movement that she was pregnant and headed to jail for up to two years. On the heels of the horrific imagery of the bloodied and beaten Freedom Riders that had been spread far and wide, they surmised that Mississippi didn’t want to find itself, once again, at the center of a national political debate.

As a result, the government reduced Nash’s sentence for “contributing to the delinquency of minors” without formally addressing it. This left Nash in a predicament. She didn’t want the prejudiced justice system she had been fighting against to think that she was indebted to it. She was ready and willing to serve her full sentence, after all.

“When I got home, I wrote Judge Moore a certified return-receipt letter. I said, ‘In case you should change your mind and you want me, here’s where you can reach me,’” Nash recalls. And though the judge never took her up on the offer, Nash was always ready to do what was necessary to make a mark. To change the world, she says with a laugh, “sometimes you have to be bad.”

READ MORE: Civil Rights Movement Timeline


How Freedom Rider Diane Nash Risked Her Life to Desegregate the South - HISTORY

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The Freedom Riders were a mixed group of African-Americans and white people who rode between cities in the deep South to test federal laws banning segregation on interstate public transit. While it was illegal to have racially-segregated seats on buses and at bus stops after the law passed, in reality the law was mostly ignored.

The 20-day trip between Washington, D.C., to Jackson, Mississippi commanded the nation's attention after the Freedom Riders were attacked and beaten by racist pro-segregationists.

In a larger sense, these interstate bus rides were about more than securing a seat for black passengers. It was a symbol of the growing resistance from African-Americans and allies against the hateful fire of the nation's systemic racism.


Nashville’s Freedom Riders: HBCU students risked all to end segregation

Frederick Leonard stands in front of the Civil Rights mural at the Historic Metro Courthouse. (Photo: John Partipilo)

On Feb. 27, 1960, John Lewis, then a student at American Baptist College, joined other college students in Nashville as they sat down at the “whites only’’ lunch counter at Woolworth’s in the heart of downtown to begin their work integrating the city’s stores.

Students at HBCUs, including Tennessee State University, Fisk University, Meharry Medical College and ABC, risked their reputations within their families, their educations — in many cases, they were expelled — and their lives. Few became famous but all took risks.

Civil rights activists known as the Freedom Riders disembark from their bus (marked Dallas), en route from Montgomery, Alabama, to Jackson, Mississippi, as they seek to enforce integration by using ‘white only’ waiting rooms at bus stations, 26th May 1961. (Photo by Daily Express/Archive Photos/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

It was part of the historic push to tear down the walls of racial segregation in public accommodations and interstate travel that forced Tennessee and the rest of the nation to change.

Now decades after the Nashville sit-ins, the ranks of surviving activists who were on the front lines and the Freedom Rides that followed have thinned considerably. Lewis, the revered civil rights activist who led the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and longtime Georgia congressman, died in July. So did the Rev. C.T. Vivian, who studied at American Baptist College and worked alongside the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

Though not well known beyond Nashville but just as impactful in the community were Kwame Lillard, a Nashville sit-in organizer and political stalwart who died in December, and Matthew Walker Jr., a sit-in leader who also participated in the Freedom Rides, who died in 2016.

Efforts to acknowledge their sacrifices have been attempted through the years. Tennessee State has awarded honorary doctorate degrees to several students who were kicked out of school because of their participation. A 60th anniversary commemoration of the sit-in movement was scheduled last year, but canceled due to the coronavirus pandemic. Among the anticipated highlights was a reunion of surviving participants.

The military guard a bus en route from Montgomery, Alabama, as civil rights activists known as the Freedom Riders head for Jackson, Mississippi, 26th May 1961. (Photo by Express/Archive Photos/Getty Images)

“All that fell apart because of COVID,” said King Hollands, who helped integrate a Catholic high school in the late 1950s. “I’m not sure we’ll ever get another chance.”

Last summer, photojournalist John Partipilo conceived of the idea of documenting the remaining seven Nashville participants of the Freedom Rides, inspired by his friendship with one of those seven, Kwame Leo Lillard. There are no monuments to the seven men and women. Their names aren’t widely known and with the exception of Lillard, they didn’t hold public office and didn’t become household names.

But as teenagers and young adults, they changed America. They showed white people across the country what dignity looked like.

Through photography by Partipilo and their own words in interviews with reporters Anita Wadhwani and Dulce Torres Guzman, we share their stories.

Since Partipilo started the project, photographing the seven Freedom Riders in their homes and in the Civil Rights Room of the Nashville Public Rider, their number has decreased. Lillard died just before Christmas.

King Hollands in the Nashville Library Civil Rights Room. Hollands was anticipating a 60-year reunion of Freedom Riders in 2020 but COVID-19 prevented the event from happening. (Photo: John Partipilo)

King Hollands: An early integrator

Before he participated in the sit-in movements in 1960 that eventually led to desegregation in Nashville, King Hollands — then a junior physics major at Fisk University — saw how international students would freely sit at restaurants and lunch counters throughout the city.

“We had all these international students at Fisk, at Vanderbilt, at American Baptist College,” he said. “They were able to go to local restaurants. The American students would go, too, if they wore international garb.”

A childhood spent traveling with his parents and siblings across the country and a house frequently full of visitors from around the nation stopping in to see his father, a Church of God in Christ minister, gave Hollands a broader perspective about race than he learned in Catholic school in the segregated South. Then in 1954, after the Supreme Court’s Brown v Board of Education, Hollands landed in the first class of 14 Black students to integrate Father Ryan High School.

In February 1960, Hollands spent two weeks in jail after his arrest for sitting at the lunch counter at a downtown Nashville Woolworth’s store. Three months later, Nashville desegregated restaurants.

Hollands still has the metal cup that jailers used to serve him weak potato soup for his meals.

King Hollands poses outside the home owned by Nashville civil rights attorney Alexander Looby. Looby’s home, near Fisk University and Meharry Medical College, was bombed in April 1960 by segregationists. (Photo: John Partipilo)

The lesson Hollands would like people to take from that time is that change didn’t spring from spontaneous activism. It took months of training, education and planning. It built on movements that had come before.

“It wasn’t a flash in the pan,” he said. “The movement was already here. The sit-in movement came after that.”

As Hollands and fellow students headed to Woolworth’s that day in February, crowds spat on them, shouted and in some cases tried to attack them. They were prepared.

“Only students who had gone through training could participate,” he said. “Those who didn’t — or felt like they couldn’t not react, also had a role. They stood outside. They observed.”

He sees parallels to the Black Lives Matter movement today.

“Even though there were spontaneous protests over George Floyd, there’s planning there. The sit-in movement also had support from whites. That was important. You see that with Black Lives Matter. And there’s the emphasis on the importance of voting.”

There’s no better example of that, Hollands said, than Stacey Abrams, the former Georgia state representative whose efforts to fight voter suppression and turn out voters in that state is credited for helping elect two Democratic senators in 2020.

“This is the kind of leadership and planning that’s part of the new movement,” he said.

Hollands, now 79, is no longer involved in activism. He is a full-time caretaker to a family member at home.

But for decades he has been part of an informal Nashville civil rights veterans group that, before last year, met regularly.

“COVID has not made that possible,” he said. “I’m probably one of the younger ones in the group. We’re not tech savvy, so no Zooming. We don’t have the tools. That’s why younger people are so important. We can offer our experience. But it’s up to them now. We are the old folks.”

Frankie Henry sitting for photojournalist John Partipilo inside the Civil Rights Room of the Nashville Public Library.

Frankie Henry: Scarred after 60 years

Frankie Henry became involved in the civil rights movement by accident.

On Feb. 27, 1960, Henry was a freshman at Tennessee State University and had just left her tap-dancing club. She had dreams of being a Pepperette — the university’s tap dance troupe —and had her tap shoes slung over her shoulder when she was approached by a light-skinned woman at a downtown Nashville bus depot asking if Henry could accompany her.

“I asked myself, ‘what does this white girl want with me?’” she said.

As they walked through The Arcade, a strip of enclosed stores in downtown Nashville, Henry noticed several Black students sitting at whites-only counters.

“They’re going to get in trouble,” Henry commented, and then the woman began to explain that the students were in the middle of a citywide movement to protest segregation. The woman then questioned Henry.

“Are you from Nashville?” asked the woman.

“I said ‘yes,’” responded Henry.

“Can you sit with us?” asked the woman.

She eventually conceded and sat down at a diner with the mysterious woman. Henry later learned the woman was Diane Nash, a leader of the student wing of the civil rights movement. Nash had been unable to successfully protest segregation as she was often mistaken for a white woman.

While they sat at the diner, the waitress came and went without acknowledging Henry, but bringing coffee for Nash. The women then began to discuss the movement to end segregation and the practice of nonviolent protesting.

“We’re following the teachings of Martin Luther King Jr.,” said Nash.

The women’s conversation was eventually interrupted when the waitress came back and confronted Nash as to why she was sitting with an “n-word”.

“I keep telling you we don’t serve the n-word in here,” the waitress told Nash.

“But you served me, and I’m a Negro,” Nash responded.

Henry jumped in surprise because that was the first time she learned Nash was a Black American. The women then walked down Fifth Avenue, past McLellan’s and Woolworth’s, to meet other protesters. Now in another diner, Henry continued to discuss the civil rights movement when suddenly a white woman put out a lit cigarette on Henry’s arm.

“She looked at me and I looked at her and looked down and she still had [the cigarette] there. I was thinking, I’m only 19.”

“ I said to myself this is my first day in the sit-in and I’m so sorry but I’m going to have to end this movement because I can’t take this,” said Henry.

Henry balled her fist and was about to strike the offending woman when she noticed a protester shaking his head, silently asking her not to resort to violence.

The white woman then attempted to set Henry’s poncho on fire, and when the protesters tried to leave the diner, they were arrested and taken to jail. Her parents learned from the 6 p.m. news about their daughter’s arrest, and they tried to bail her out. But Henry made the decision to stay.

“I said I’m not leaving until the rest of them leave. We haven’t done anything wrong. I didn’t know at the time that they were going to try us one by one and I would be in there for two weeks,” she said.

During that time, the protesters slept on cold steel bunk beds with no mattresses or blankets. Among the 80 of them was John Lewis, then another student who would go on to become a congressman. Locked up, they communicated with each other by using reflective compacts. They passed the time singing, chanting and talking about the movement as they stool trial one by one.

Frankie Henry, photographed in her home, inadvertently became involved in the Movement when Diane Nash pressed her into service. (Photo: John Partipilo)

By the time Henry was released, she was given failing grades for missed classes at the university.

“They mailed my grades and told me I would never be able to attend a state-supported institution again because my grades were too low,” said Henry.

She later found out that people had attacked her parents’ house because the Tennessean newspaper had published her name, but despite her own worries about putting her family in danger, her father still supported her future involvement in the movement. He told her she did the right thing.

She eventually returned to Tennessee State in 1966 but was forced to take freshman courses over again. Henry’s education had been delayed by almost a decade, as she graduated in 1970 instead of 1962.

She spent the next few decades teaching and retired in 2006. During her career, she traveled to different schools throughout Tennessee to tell her story and teach about Black history. She was often asked for autographs, and on one occasion, she found herself teaching descendants of people who had confronted her during the civil rights movement, including the great-grandson of the director who had been ordered to give her failing grades.

She still bears the scar from the cigarette burn.

Ernest “Rip” Patton reminisces about his days in the 1960s Civil Rights Movement while walking through the Nashville Public Library. (Photo: John Partipilo)

Ernest “Rip” Patton Jr.: A drum major for justice

Ernest “Rip” Patton Jr. was a drum major in the marching band at Tennessee State when he joined the newly formed branch of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) in 1960.

Ernest “Rip” Patton inside the Nashville Public Library’s Civil Rights Room. (Photo: John Partipilo)

In February of that year, he took part in sit-ins at the downtown Nashville lunch counters with fellow students in a nonviolent protest of segregation, an effort that succeeded in integrating downtown businesses later that year. In May 1961, Patton boarded a Greyhound bus in Nashville headed for Jackson, Mississippi to challenge segregated interstate travel.

Patton and his fellow Freedom Riders were arrested at the bus station in Jackson and sent to Parchman Farm, the Mississippi state penitentiary notorious for its brutal conditions.

He was expelled from Tennessee State for his activism. He never returned. But nearly 50 years later in 2008, the university awarded him an honorary doctorate degree.

Now 80, Patton worked as a jazz musician and a truck driver, and has talked at length about his experiences since.

In 2011, he appeared in a televised interview with Oprah Winfrey describing what the students faced inside Parchman prison.

“We did a lot of singing,” he said. “They didn’t like the singing. And every time that they would threaten to do something, we would sing.”

Patton, his voice a deep baritone, began to sing: “You can take our mattress, oh yes,” in a melody that echoed spiritual music, repeating the verse several times. The audience, and Oprah, joined him.

Near her Nashville home, Etta Simpson Ray reflects on the Civil Rights Movement. (Photo: John Partipilo)

Dr. Etta Simpson Ray: Faced anger, arrest, silence

Dr. Etta Simpson Ray was one of 14 students from Tennessee State University, then called Tennessee A&I State University, who boarded a bus in 1961 headed to Birmingham then Montgomery, Alabama as part of the Freedom Rides to desegregate interstate travel.

Etta Simpson Ray holds a copy of her friend and civil rights leader Bernard Layfayette’s book. (Photo: John Partipilo)

There was a quietness about it as a whole Nashville didn’t want to talk about it. It was like — it happened, It’s over. – Dr. Etta Simpson Ray on not discussing her activism for decades after the 1960s

Like other participants, Ray went through training sessions on nonviolent resistance organized by the Nashville chapter of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee.

In Birmingham, they were met by an angry mob, then herded by police into the bus station where they spent the night with no lights, water, telephone or use of bathrooms. The next day they were driven to Montgomery, where they were again met by a mob. Ray joined a later Freedom Ride to Jackson, Miss., where she was arrested and sent to Parchman state prison for a short time before she made bond. Along with other students who participated in the Freedom Rides, Ray returned to Nashville only to be expelled from college.

In the ensuing years in Nashville, the students’ heroic actions during the civil rights movement went largely unacknowledged, Ray said during an interview with Versify, a podcast by Nashville Public Radio station WPLN and nonprofit literary organization, The Porch, last year. She didn’t speak much about her experience, even with family, for decades, she said.

“There was a quietness about it as a whole Nashville didn’t want to talk about it,” she said in the broadcast. “It was like — it happened. It’s over.”

In 2008, 47 years later, Ray and her fellow expelled students, were awarded honorary doctorate degrees from Tennessee State University.

Frederick Leonard stands in front of the Civil Rights mural at the Historic Metro Courthouse. (Photo: John Partipilo)

Frederick Leonard: A time like this

Sixty years after his imprisonment as one of the original Freedom Riders who boarded a bus in Nashville determined to desegregate the Deep South, Frederick Leonard’s thoughts turned to a Black man he only remembers as “PeeWee.”

At the notorious Parchman Farm prison in Mississippi — where Leonard and his cellmate Stokely Carmichael were sentenced to 60 days for the crime of walking into the white section of a bus depot in 1961 — Leonard would join other imprisoned Freedom Riders in singing while idling away the days.

In retaliation, white prison guards spiked their food with laxatives then turned off the water so the toilets wouldn’t flush, he said. They took away their mattresses, leaving them with nothing to sleep on but a wire frame or a hard floor.

After the second or third time guards tried to seize the mattresses, Leonard clung to his and wouldn’t let go.

“They dragged me and the mattress down the cell block,” Leonard recalled. “A Black guy there, real muscular — he was a prisoner, too, but I didn’t know him. He begged me to let go.”

“The guards were saying: ‘Get him, PeeWee, get him.’”

PeeWee, Leonard noticed, stood with tears in his eyes.

“It was really something,” Leonard said in a February phone interview. “This big Black guy started to cry. Then he started beating me. He didn’t want to do that. I could see it really hurt him.”

“I’ve always wanted to talk to PeeWee,” Leonard said. “I’ve wondered if he was still alive. I’d tell him the same thing I would have then. ‘I know it hurt you more than it hurt me.’”

Not knowing PeeWee’s real name, Leonard has never been able to find him, though he wishes he had.

Leonard was one of scores of Black and white civil rights activists who boarded buses from Nashville to Birmingham, Jackson and elsewhere to protest segregated restrooms and lunch counters at bus stations across the Jim Crow South.

In a way, we’ve done a 360. You’ve got mass incarceration, voter suppression laws and school segregation again. I look at this like, will this ever end? – Frederick Leonard

It was 1961 and Leonard’s first year at Tennessee State, where he was mentored by civil rights icons including the Rev. Kelly Miller Smith, John Lewis and Jim Lawson. They impressed upon him the need for nonviolent civil disobedience.

“They taught Jesus Christ and Mahatma Gandhi,” he said. “They also convinced me that if I fought back, I might get killed. Of course, I knew we might get killed anyway. They just kind of convinced me that you don’t want to harm people.”

Leonard wasn’t always convinced that nonviolent action was the best tool for ending segregation in the 1960’s-era South.

In 1960, Leonard was a 17-year-old high school senior at the Howard School in Chattanooga reading newspaper accounts of sit-ins at lunch counters in North Carolina and Nashville. With no college leaders or ministers to guide them, Leonard and about 30 of his Black classmates walked down to three Chattanooga variety stores and sat at segregated lunch counters after school. When they were grabbed by the back of their shirts and pulled off the counters, Leonard fought back.

Guided by mentors at TSU, Leonard said his thinking began to shift.

Frederick Leonard’s nature vacillated between the non-violent teachings of Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Rev. James Lawson and a desire to fight back. (Photo: John Partipilo)

Leonard grew up in Chattanooga with segregated schools and pools and water fountains but didn’t really understand the racism underlying those realities until he was a teen.

He recalled that when he was 11 years old and a neighbor bought a television set —the first in his neighborhood — he was dumbfounded. How was it possible that he could see people broadcast from New York then switch the channel and see people from another city on that small screen?

“That’s the same confusion I felt when I realized how people hated us because we were a different skin color. I was really a confused person when I found out people hated us because of our skin color. Growing up in segregation didn’t feel like a big deal.”

After his release from Parchman after serving 44 of 60 days — by then the prison was holding an increasing number of Freedom Riders traveling from the Northeast and elsewhere and running out of room — Leonard thought hard about what he had experienced. He wasn’t convinced nonviolence was the answer. Carmichael, an activist who became known for his call of “black power,” would quote Malcolm X.

“Stokely would say ‘why are we on our knees praying while white men are violent?”

In 1961, Leonard plotted with a half dozen other activists to burn down a white-owned Nashville store on the corner of 40th Street and Clifton Avenue that he said extended credit to its Black customers then presented bills for more than they owed.

Police foiled the attack as Leonard and other young men arrived in a station wagon with Molotov cocktails in the back.

After his arrest and the court proceedings that followed, Leonard and his then-wife moved to Detroit to start a new life. They had a baby by then. Leonard went to work at the Chrysler plant before returning to Nashville. He founded his own company selling Afro hair picks out of a building on Jefferson Street in what is now an affluent Germantown neighborhood. The company was successful, selling picks to drug stores up and down the Northeast.

He wishes he’d held onto the building to cash in on the gentrification that has turned the area into high-value residential real estate, largely occupied by non-Black residents.

Today, he walks most days — sometimes 10 miles a day — and watches “the crazies” on CNN and MSNBC news, marveling at former President Donald Trump’s challenge to legal votes cast in the presidential election.

“I thought I’d never live to see a time like this,” he said, even at 78 his voice strong and rising. “I never ever thought there’d come a time when you would see them try to disenfranchise white people. In Georgia, a lot of white people voted for Biden.”

“In a way, we’ve done a 360,” he said. “You’ve got mass incarceration, voter suppression laws and school segregation again. I look at this like, will this ever end? We will never ever become the country we should be until we stop fighting the Civil War?

“Change is going to come. I don’t think I will live to see it. At one time, I thought I would. I don’t know now. I don’t know.”

Leonard has long since set aside what he calls his youthful ideas that people were born hating him because he is Black. Racism isn’t mysterious to him anymore, he said. It is learned, taught and chosen.

“But,” he said, “to be honest, I am still confused about the television.”

Mary Jean Smith outside her North Nashville home. Another Freedom Riders, Alan Cason, gave Smith the rose bush she poses with. Cason died in March 2020 Smith could not be reached for an interview. (Photo: John Partipilo) The late Kwame Leo Lillard during his last visit with photojournalist John Partipilo, inside the Civil Rights Room at Nashville Public Library.

Kwame Leo Lillard: Rest in Power

Kwame Lillard was born in Florida but moved to Nashville with his family at a young age, becoming an integral part of the city’s fabric. He graduated from North Nashville’s Pearl High School before attending Tennessee State and joining the civil rights movement.

Lillard was an outspoken critic of a plan to route I-40 through North Nashville, a route that eventually bisected the city’s thriving Black business district along and near Jefferson Street. He was elected to Metro Council’s District 5 in 1987 and served two terms as a fiery spokesman for his community. Lillard served as a mentor for many of Nashville’s current Black leaders and elected officials and never stopped speaking out against unjust causes, including a potential police station that was slated to be sited on Jefferson Street.

Lillard raises his fist at the Freedom Riders mural on Jefferson Street in North Nashville.

He founded the African American Cultural Alliance, organized the African American Street Festival and annually held a ceremony to honor the U.S. Colored Troops of the Union Army.

Lilliard died in December.

Tennessee Lookout is part of States Newsroom, a network of news outlets that includes the Wisconsin Examiner and are supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Tennessee Lookout maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Holly McCall for questions: [email protected] Follow Tennessee Lookout on Facebook and Twitter.


Diane Nash was fearless in battle to desegregate lunch counters, buses

One of the most revered and fearsome activists of the civil rights movement was less than halfway through college when she made it clear she would take the American South by storm.

Diane Nash was barely 21 years old when she first joined the movement.

A Chicago native, she was born into a middle-class Catholic family, according to the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee digital gateway. She began her college education at Howard University in Washington, D.C., before transferring in 1959 to Fisk University in Nashville, Tenn.

Nash said that was when she first saw the ugly underbelly of the South: segregation, according to SNCC. She hadn’t fully understood it until that point.

“I started feeling very confined and really resented it,” she said. “Every time I obeyed a segregation rule, I felt like I was somehow agreeing I was too inferior to go through the front door or to use the facility that the ordinary public would use.”

The Fisk student sought a way to combat segregation, which led her to the doorstep of the nearby church where Rev. James Lawson taught nonviolent, non-retaliatory protest methods. Lawson had been cultivating a group of activists that included James Bevel, John Lewis and Bernard Lafayette. Nash became a believer.

Lafayette, now a Distinguished Scholar-in-Residence at the Candler School of Theology at Emory University, was a 20-year-old student at American Baptist Theological Seminary when he met Nash. He said she quickly emerged as a leader and became the media spokesperson of Lawson’s group.

“She was always very calm, clear and articulate,” Lafayette said, adding that Nash cleverly navigated around the egos of the male-dominated group. “She didn’t try to dominate anything. But she really impressed us with her leadership abilities. One of the things that she was very good at was managing conflict within the group.”

Starting in 1960, Nash took on the fight of desegregating lunch counters in Nashville.

In a statement, Nash said she “helped lead nearly 4,000 people on a march to Nashville’s City Hall to confront the mayor about the escalating violence against protesters.”

“During that confrontation, Nash provocatively asked the mayor on the steps of City Hall, ‘Do you feel it is wrong to discriminate against a person solely on the basis of their race or color?’”

Within weeks, Nashville became the first southern city to desegregate lunch counters, according to Nash’s statement.

Along with Ruby Doris Smith, Charles Sherrod and Charles Jones, she founded the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee in 1960 and continued her work desegregating Southern lunch counters.

In February 1961, the small group sat at a counter in Rock Hill, S.C., to support nine students who had been arrested.

Nash and SNCC, like the “Rock Hill Nine,” refused bail when they were arrested.

“The SNCC activists believed that paying fines would only support the wrongness and injustice of their arrests,” the organization’s digital gateway said.

The intensity of Nash’s work increased when she became involved in the “Freedom Rides.”

The United States Supreme Court had ruled segregation of interstate travel violated the Interstate Commerce Act.

But the ruling was largely ignored.

Tom Gaither, then leader of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), proposed testing compliance with the court decision by organizing African Americans to ride a Greyhound bus from Washington, D.C. to New Orleans.

The bus carrying the “Freedom Riders” did not make it to New Orleans. On May 14, three days before they were due to reach their final destination, the Freedom Riders were met by a mob of Klansmen in Anniston, Ala.

The KKK firebombed the bus and slashed its tires. Klansmen held the doors closed to keep the Freedom Riders inside while the bus burned. But they escaped through an open back window just before the bus exploded.

The world was watching, and Nash and other activists decided the rides had to go on.

“The [Nashville] students have decided that we can’t let violence overcome,” Nash said. “We are coming into Birmingham to continue the freedom ride.”

Nash said she and 10 other students wrote their wills the night before they boarded a bus headed to Birmingham.

“It was clear to me that, if we allowed the Freedom Ride to stop at that point, just after so much violence had been inflicted, the message would have been sent that all you have to do to stop a nonviolent campaign is inflict massive violence,” Nash said in the 2010 documentary “Freedom Riders.”

The violence against Freedom Riders would continue, and Nash and hundreds of others would be arrested before “white” and “colored” signs were finally removed from bus and train terminals.

After the Freedom Rides, Nash dropped out of school to become a full-time organizer for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, headed by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. She and Bevel, then her husband, were both awarded the Rosa Parks Award from King in 1965.

Throughout February, we’ll spotlight a different African American pioneer in the Living section every day except Fridays. The stories will run in the Metro section on that day.


Nashville’s Freedom Riders: HBCU students risked all to end segregation

On Feb. 27, 1960, John Lewis, then a student at American Baptist College, joined other college students in Nashville as they sat down at the “whites only’’ lunch counter at Woolworth’s in the heart of downtown to begin their work integrating the city’s stores.

Students at HBCUs, including Tennessee State University, Fisk University, Meharry Medical College and ABC, risked their reputations within their families, their educations — in many cases, they were expelled — and their lives. Few became famous but all took risks.

It was part of the historic push to tear down the walls of racial segregation in public accommodations and interstate travel that forced Tennessee and the rest of the nation to change.

Now decades after the Nashville sit-ins, the ranks of surviving activists who were on the front lines and the Freedom Rides that followed have thinned considerably. Lewis, the revered civil rights activist who led the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and longtime Georgia congressman, died in July. So did the Rev. C.T. Vivian, who studied at American Baptist College and worked alongside the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

Civil rights activists known as the Freedom Riders disembark from their bus (marked Dallas), en route from Montgomery, Alabama, to Jackson, Mississippi, as they seek to enforce integration by using ‘white only’ waiting rooms at bus stations, 26th May 1961. (Photo by Daily Express/Archive Photos/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Though not well known beyond Nashville but just as impactful in the community were Kwame Lillard, a Nashville sit-in organizer and political stalwart who died in December, and Matthew Walker Jr., a sit-in leader who also participated in the Freedom Rides, who died in 2016.

Efforts to acknowledge their sacrifices have been attempted through the years. Tennessee State has awarded honorary doctorate degrees to several students who were kicked out of school because of their participation. A 60th anniversary commemoration of the sit-in movement was scheduled last year, but canceled due to the coronavirus pandemic. Among the anticipated highlights was a reunion of surviving participants.

“All that fell apart because of COVID,” said King Hollands, who helped integrate a Catholic high school in the late 1950s. “I’m not sure we’ll ever get another chance.”

Last summer, photojournalist John Partipilo conceived of the idea of documenting the remaining seven Nashville participants of the Freedom Rides, inspired by his friendship with one of those seven, Kwame Leo Lillard. There are no monuments to the seven men and women. Their names aren’t widely known and with the exception of Lillard, they didn’t hold public office and didn’t become household names.

The military guard a bus en route from Montgomery, Alabama, as civil rights activists known as the Freedom Riders head for Jackson, Mississippi, 26th May 1961. (Photo by Express/Archive Photos/Getty Images)

But as teenagers and young adults, they changed America. They showed white people across the country what dignity looked like.

Through photography by Partipilo and their own words in interviews with reporters Anita Wadhwani and Dulce Torres Guzman, we share their stories.

Since Partipilo started the project, photographing the seven Freedom Riders in their homes and in the Civil Rights Room of the Nashville Public Rider, their number has decreased. Lillard died just before Christmas.

King Hollands: An early integrator

King Hollands in the Nashville Library Civil Rights Room. Hollands was anticipating a 60-year reunion of Freedom Riders in 2020 but COVID-19 prevented the event from happening. (Photo: John Partipilo)

Before he participated in the sit-in movements in 1960 that eventually led to desegregation in Nashville, King Hollands — then a junior physics major at Fisk University — saw how international students would freely sit at restaurants and lunch counters throughout the city.

“We had all these international students at Fisk, at Vanderbilt, at American Baptist College,” he said. “They were able to go to local restaurants. The American students would go, too, if they wore international garb.”

A childhood spent traveling with his parents and siblings across the country and a house frequently full of visitors from around the nation stopping in to see his father, a Church of God in Christ minister, gave Hollands a broader perspective about race than he learned in Catholic school in the segregated South. Then in 1954, after the Supreme Court’s Brown v Board of Education, Hollands landed in the first class of 14 Black students to integrate Father Ryan High School.

In February 1960, Hollands spent two weeks in jail after his arrest for sitting at the lunch counter at a downtown Nashville Woolworth’s store. Three months later, Nashville desegregated restaurants.

Hollands still has the metal cup that jailers used to serve him weak potato soup for his meals.

The lesson Hollands would like people to take from that time is that change didn’t spring from spontaneous activism. It took months of training, education and planning. It built on movements that had come before.

“It wasn’t a flash in the pan,” he said. “The movement was already here. The sit-in movement came after that.”

As Hollands and fellow students headed to Woolworth’s that day in February, crowds spat on them, shouted and in some cases tried to attack them. They were prepared.

“Only students who had gone through training could participate,” he said. “Those who didn’t — or felt like they couldn’t not react, also had a role. They stood outside. They observed.”

He sees parallels to the Black Lives Matter movement today.

King Hollands poses outside the home owned by Nashville civil rights attorney Alexander Looby. Looby’s home, near Fisk University and Meharry Medical College, was bombed in April 1960 by segregationists. (Photo: John Partipilo)

“Even though there were spontaneous protests over George Floyd, there’s planning there. The sit-in movement also had support from whites. That was important. You see that with Black Lives Matter. And there’s the emphasis on the importance of voting.”

There’s no better example of that, Hollands said, than Stacey Abrams, the former Georgia state representative whose efforts to fight voter suppression and turn out voters in that state is credited for helping elect two Democratic senators in 2020.

“This is the kind of leadership and planning that’s part of the new movement,” he said.

Hollands, now 79, is no longer involved in activism. He is a full-time caretaker to a family member at home.

But for decades he has been part of an informal Nashville civil rights veterans group that, before last year, met regularly.

“COVID has not made that possible,” he said. “I’m probably one of the younger ones in the group. We’re not tech savvy, so no Zooming. We don’t have the tools. That’s why younger people are so important. We can offer our experience. But it’s up to them now. We are the old folks.”

Frankie Henry: Scarred after 60 years

Frankie Henry sitting for photojournalist John Partipilo inside the Civil Rights Room of the Nashville Public Library.

Frankie Henry became involved in the civil rights movement by accident.

On Feb. 27, 1960, Henry was a freshman at Tennessee State University and had just left her tap-dancing club. She had dreams of being a Pepperette — the university’s tap dance troupe —and had her tap shoes slung over her shoulder when she was approached by a light-skinned woman at a downtown Nashville bus depot asking if Henry could accompany her.

“I asked myself, ‘what does this white girl want with me?’” she said.

As they walked through The Arcade, a strip of enclosed stores in downtown Nashville, Henry noticed several Black students sitting at whites-only counters.

“They’re going to get in trouble,” Henry commented, and then the woman began to explain that the students were in the middle of a citywide movement to protest segregation. The woman then questioned Henry.

“Are you from Nashville?” asked the woman.

“I said ‘yes,’” responded Henry.

“Can you sit with us?” asked the woman.

She eventually conceded and sat down at a diner with the mysterious woman. Henry later learned the woman was Diane Nash, a leader of the student wing of the civil rights movement. Nash had been unable to successfully protest segregation as she was often mistaken for a white woman.

While they sat at the diner, the waitress came and went without acknowledging Henry, but bringing coffee for Nash. The women then began to discuss the movement to end segregation and the practice of nonviolent protesting.

“We’re following the teachings of Martin Luther King Jr.,” said Nash.

The women’s conversation was eventually interrupted when the waitress came back and confronted Nash as to why she was sitting with an “n-word”.

“I keep telling you we don’t serve the n-word in here,” the waitress told Nash.

“But you served me, and I’m a Negro,” Nash responded.

Henry jumped in surprise because that was the first time she learned Nash was a Black American. The women then walked down Fifth Avenue, past McLellan’s and Woolworth’s, to meet other protesters. Now in another diner, Henry continued to discuss the civil rights movement when suddenly a white woman put out a lit cigarette on Henry’s arm.

“She looked at me and I looked at her and looked down and she still had [the cigarette] there. I was thinking, I’m only 19.”

“ I said to myself this is my first day in the sit-in and I’m so sorry but I’m going to have to end this movement because I can’t take this,” said Henry.

Henry balled her fist and was about to strike the offending woman when she noticed a protester shaking his head, silently asking her not to resort to violence.

The white woman then attempted to set Henry’s poncho on fire, and when the protesters tried to leave the diner, they were arrested and taken to jail. Her parents learned from the 6 p.m. news about their daughter’s arrest, and they tried to bail her out. But Henry made the decision to stay.

“I said I’m not leaving until the rest of them leave. We haven’t done anything wrong. I didn’t know at the time that they were going to try us one by one and I would be in there for two weeks,” she said.

During that time, the protesters slept on cold steel bunk beds with no mattresses or blankets. Among the 80 of them was John Lewis, then another student who would go on to become a congressman. Locked up, they communicated with each other by using reflective compacts. They passed the time singing, chanting and talking about the movement as they stood trial one by one.

Frankie Henry, photographed in her home, inadvertently became involved in the Movement when Diane Nash pressed her into service. (Photo: John Partipilo)

By the time Henry was released, she was given failing grades for missed classes at the university.

“They mailed my grades and told me I would never be able to attend a state-supported institution again because my grades were too low,” said Henry.

She later found out that people had attacked her parents’ house because the Tennessean newspaper had published her name, but despite her own worries about putting her family in danger, her father still supported her future involvement in the movement. He told her she did the right thing.

She eventually returned to Tennessee State in 1966 but was forced to take freshman courses over again. Henry’s education had been delayed by almost a decade, as she graduated in 1970 instead of 1962.

She spent the next few decades teaching and retired in 2006. During her career, she traveled to different schools throughout Tennessee to tell her story and teach about Black history. She was often asked for autographs, and on one occasion, she found herself teaching descendants of people who had confronted her during the civil rights movement, including the great-grandson of the director who had been ordered to give her failing grades.

She still bears the scar from the cigarette burn.

Ernest “Rip” Patton Jr.: A drum major for justice

Ernest “Rip” Patton reminisces about his days in the 1960s Civil Rights Movement while walking through the Nashville Public Library. (Photo: John Partipilo)

Ernest “Rip” Patton Jr. was a drum major in the marching band at Tennessee State when he joined the newly formed branch of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) in 1960.

In February of that year, he took part in sit-ins at the downtown Nashville lunch counters with fellow students in a nonviolent protest of segregation, an effort that succeeded in integrating downtown businesses later that year. In May 1961, Patton boarded a Greyhound bus in Nashville headed for Jackson, Mississippi to challenge segregated interstate travel.

Patton and his fellow Freedom Riders were arrested at the bus station in Jackson and sent to Parchman Farm, the Mississippi state penitentiary notorious for its brutal conditions.

Ernest “Rip” Patton inside the Nashville Public Library’s Civil Rights Room. (Photo: John Partipilo)

He was expelled from Tennessee State for his activism. He never returned. But nearly 50 years later in 2008, the university awarded him an honorary doctorate degree.

Now 80, Patton worked as a jazz musician and a truck driver, and has talked at length about his experiences since.

In 2011, he appeared in a televised interview with Oprah Winfrey describing what the students faced inside Parchman prison.

“We did a lot of singing,” he said. “They didn’t like the singing. And every time that they would threaten to do something, we would sing.”

Patton, his voice a deep baritone, began to sing: “You can take our mattress, oh yes,” in a melody that echoed spiritual music, repeating the verse several times. The audience, and Oprah, joined him.

Dr. Etta Simpson Ray: Faced anger, arrest, silence

Dr. Etta Simpson Ray was one of 14 students from Tennessee State University, then called Tennessee A&I State University, who boarded a bus in 1961 headed to Birmingham then Montgomery, Alabama as part of the Freedom Rides to desegregate interstate travel.

There was a quietness about it as a whole Nashville didn't want to talk about it. It was like — it happened, It's over. – Dr. Etta Simpson Ray on not discussing her activism for decades after the 1960s

Like other participants, Ray went through training sessions on nonviolent resistance organized by the Nashville chapter of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee.

In Birmingham, they were met by an angry mob, then herded by police into the bus station where they spent the night with no lights, water, telephone or use of bathrooms. The next day they were driven to Montgomery, where they were again met by a mob. Ray joined a later Freedom Ride to Jackson, Miss., where she was arrested and sent to Parchman state prison for a short time before she made bond. Along with other students who participated in the Freedom Rides, Ray returned to Nashville only to be expelled from college.

Etta Simpson Ray holds a copy of her friend and civil rights leader Bernard Layfayette’s book. (Photo: John Partipilo)

In the ensuing years in Nashville, the students’ heroic actions during the civil rights movement went largely unacknowledged, Ray said during an interview with Versify, a podcast by Nashville Public Radio station WPLN and nonprofit literary organization, The Porch, last year. She didn’t speak much about her experience, even with family, for decades, she said.

“There was a quietness about it as a whole Nashville didn’t want to talk about it,” she said in the broadcast. “It was like — it happened. It’s over.”

In 2008, 47 years later, Ray and her fellow expelled students, were awarded honorary doctorate degrees from Tennessee State University.

Frederick Leonard: A time like this

Frederick Leonard stands in front of the Civil Rights mural at the Historic Metro Courthouse. (Photo: John Partipilo)

Sixty years after his imprisonment as one of the original Freedom Riders who boarded a bus in Nashville determined to desegregate the Deep South, Frederick Leonard’s thoughts turned to a Black man he only remembers as “PeeWee.”

At the notorious Parchman Farm prison in Mississippi — where Leonard and his cellmate Stokely Carmichael were sentenced to 60 days for the crime of walking into the white section of a bus depot in 1961 — Leonard would join other imprisoned Freedom Riders in singing while idling away the days.

In retaliation, white prison guards spiked their food with laxatives then turned off the water so the toilets wouldn’t flush, he said. They took away their mattresses, leaving them with nothing to sleep on but a wire frame or a hard floor.

After the second or third time guards tried to seize the mattresses, Leonard clung to his and wouldn’t let go.

“They dragged me and the mattress down the cell block,” Leonard recalled. “A Black guy there, real muscular — he was a prisoner, too, but I didn’t know him. He begged me to let go.”

“The guards were saying: ‘Get him, PeeWee, get him.’”

PeeWee, Leonard noticed, stood with tears in his eyes.

“It was really something,” Leonard said in a February phone interview. “This big Black guy started to cry. Then he started beating me. He didn’t want to do that. I could see it really hurt him.”

“I’ve always wanted to talk to PeeWee,” Leonard said. “I’ve wondered if he was still alive. I’d tell him the same thing I would have then. ‘I know it hurt you more than it hurt me.’”

Not knowing PeeWee’s real name, Leonard has never been able to find him, though he wishes he had.

Leonard was one of scores of Black and white civil rights activists who boarded buses from Nashville to Birmingham, Jackson and elsewhere to protest segregated restrooms and lunch counters at bus stations across the Jim Crow South.

In a way, we've done a 360. You've got mass incarceration, voter suppression laws and school segregation again. I look at this like, will this ever end? – Frederick Leonard

It was 1961 and Leonard’s first year at Tennessee State, where he was mentored by civil rights icons including the Rev. Kelly Miller Smith, John Lewis and Jim Lawson. They impressed upon him the need for nonviolent civil disobedience.

“They taught Jesus Christ and Mahatma Gandhi,” he said. “They also convinced me that if I fought back, I might get killed. Of course, I knew we might get killed anyway. They just kind of convinced me that you don’t want to harm people.”

Leonard wasn’t always convinced that nonviolent action was the best tool for ending segregation in the 1960’s-era South.

In 1960, Leonard was a 17-year-old high school senior at the Howard School in Chattanooga reading newspaper accounts of sit-ins at lunch counters in North Carolina and Nashville. With no college leaders or ministers to guide them, Leonard and about 30 of his Black classmates walked down to three Chattanooga variety stores and sat at segregated lunch counters after school. When they were grabbed by the back of their shirts and pulled off the counters, Leonard fought back.

Guided by mentors at TSU, Leonard said his thinking began to shift.

Leonard grew up in Chattanooga with segregated schools and pools and water fountains but didn’t really understand the racism underlying those realities until he was a teen.

He recalled that when he was 11 years old and a neighbor bought a television set —the first in his neighborhood — he was dumbfounded. How was it possible that he could see people broadcast from New York then switch the channel and see people from another city on that small screen?

“That’s the same confusion I felt when I realized how people hated us because we were a different skin color. I was really a confused person when I found out people hated us because of our skin color. Growing up in segregation didn’t feel like a big deal.”

After his release from Parchman after serving 44 of 60 days — by then the prison was holding an increasing number of Freedom Riders traveling from the Northeast and elsewhere and running out of room — Leonard thought hard about what he had experienced. He wasn’t convinced nonviolence was the answer. Carmichael, an activist who became known for his call of “black power,” would quote Malcolm X.

“Stokely would say ‘why are we on our knees praying while white men are violent?”

In 1961, Leonard plotted with a half dozen other activists to burn down a white-owned Nashville store on the corner of 40th Street and Clifton Avenue that he said extended credit to its Black customers then presented bills for more than they owed.

Police foiled the attack as Leonard and other young men arrived in a station wagon with Molotov cocktails in the back.

Frederick Leonard’s nature vacillated between the non-violent teachings of Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Rev. James Lawson and a desire to fight back. (Photo: John Partipilo)

After his arrest and the court proceedings that followed, Leonard and his then-wife moved to Detroit to start a new life. They had a baby by then. Leonard went to work at the Chrysler plant before returning to Nashville. He founded his own company selling Afro hair picks out of a building on Jefferson Street in what is now an affluent Germantown neighborhood. The company was successful, selling picks to drug stores up and down the Northeast.

He wishes he’d held onto the building to cash in on the gentrification that has turned the area into high-value residential real estate, largely occupied by non-Black residents.

Today, he walks most days — sometimes 10 miles a day — and watches “the crazies” on CNN and MSNBC news, marvelling at former President Donald Trump’s challenge to legal votes cast in the presidential election.

“I thought I’d never live to see a time like this,” he said, even at 78 his voice strong and rising. “I never ever thought there’d come a time when you would see them try to disenfranchise white people. In Georgia, a lot of white people voted for Biden.”

“In a way, we’ve done a 360,” he said. “You’ve got mass incarceration, voter suppression laws and school segregation again. I look at this like, will this ever end? We will never ever become the country we should be until we stop fighting the Civil War?

“Change is going to come. I don’t think I will live to see it. At one time, I thought I would. I don’t know now. I don’t know.”

Leonard has long since set aside what he calls his youthful ideas that people were born hating him because he is Black. Racism isn’t mysterious to him anymore, he said. It is learned, taught and chosen.

“But,” he said, “to be honest, I am still confused about the television.”

Mary Jean Smith outside her North Nashville home. Another Freedom Riders, Alan Cason, gave Smith the rose bush she poses with. Cason died in March 2020 Smith could not be reached for an interview. (Photo: John Partipilo)

Kwame Leo Lillard: Rest in Power

The late Kwame Leo Lillard during his last visit with photojournalist John Partipilo, inside the Civil Rights Room at Nashville Public Library.

Kwame Lillard was born in Florida but moved to Nashville with his family at a young age, becoming an integral part of the city’s fabric. He graduated from North Nashville’s Pearl High School before attending Tennessee State and joining the civil rights movement.

Lillard was an outspoken critic of a plan to route I-40 through North Nashville, a route that eventually bisected the city’s thriving Black business district along and near Jefferson Street. He was elected to Metro Council’s District 5 in 1987 and served two terms as a fiery spokesman for his community. Lillard served as a mentor for many of Nashville’s current Black leaders and elected officials and never stopped speaking out against unjust causes, including a potential police station that was slated to be sited on Jefferson Street.

He founded the African American Cultural Alliance, organized the African American Street Festival and annually held a ceremony to honor the U.S. Colored Troops of the Union Army.

Lilliard died in December.

(In the story’s featured photo, Lillard raises his fist at the Freedom Riders mural on Jefferson Street in North Nashville.)


Find out what's happening in Nashville with free, real-time updates from Patch.

Students at HBCUs, including Tennessee State University, Fisk University, Meharry Medical College and ABC, risked their reputations within their families, their educations — in many cases, they were expelled — and their lives. Few became famous but all took risks.

It was part of the historic push to tear down the walls of racial segregation in public accommodations and interstate travel that forced Tennessee and the rest of the nation to change.


Nashville’s Freedom Riders: Remembering The HBCU Students On The Front Lines Of Segregation

The Civil Rights Movement would not be what it was without HBCU students. These students, hailing from Tennessee State University, Fisk University, American Baptist College, and more, sacrificed not only their lives, but the lives of their families, their grades, and their careers. A recent story, originally titled “Nashville’s Freedom Riders: HBCU students risked all to end segregation” is looking to tell the stories of the late and still-living history-makers who put it all on the line for us all. The story below was originally published in the Wisconsin Examiner and written by John Partipilo, Anita Wadhwani, and Dulce Torres Guzman.

Frederick Leonard stands in front of the Civil Rights mural at the Historic Metro Courthouse. (Photo: John Partipilo)

On Feb. 27, 1960, John Lewis, then a student at American Baptist College, joined other college students in Nashville as they sat down at the “whites only’’ lunch counter at Woolworth’s in the heart of downtown to begin their work integrating the city’s stores.

Students at HBCUs, including Tennessee State University, Fisk University, Meharry Medical College and ABC, risked their reputations within their families, their educations — in many cases, they were expelled — and their lives. Few became famous but all took risks.

Civil rights activists known as the Freedom Riders disembark from their bus (marked Dallas), en route from Montgomery, Alabama, to Jackson, Mississippi, as they seek to enforce integration by using ‘white only’ waiting rooms at bus stations, 26th May 1961. (Photo by Daily Express/Archive Photos/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

It was part of the historic push to tear down the walls of racial segregation in public accommodations and interstate travel that forced Tennessee and the rest of the nation to change.

Now decades after the Nashville sit-ins, the ranks of surviving activists who were on the front lines and the Freedom Rides that followed have thinned considerably. Lewis, the revered civil rights activist who led the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and longtime Georgia congressman, died in July. So did the Rev. C.T. Vivian, who studied at American Baptist College and worked alongside the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

Though not well known beyond Nashville but just as impactful in the community were Kwame Lillard, a Nashville sit-in organizer and political stalwart who died in December, and Matthew Walker Jr., a sit-in leader who also participated in the Freedom Rides, who died in 2016.

Efforts to acknowledge their sacrifices have been attempted through the years. Tennessee State has awarded honorary doctorate degrees to several students who were kicked out of school because of their participation. A 60th anniversary commemoration of the sit-in movement was scheduled last year, but canceled due to the coronavirus pandemic. Among the anticipated highlights was a reunion of surviving participants.

The military guard a bus en route from Montgomery, Alabama, as civil rights activists known as the Freedom Riders head for Jackson, Mississippi, 26th May 1961. (Photo by Express/Archive Photos/Getty Images)

“All that fell apart because of COVID,” said King Hollands, who helped integrate a Catholic high school in the late 1950s. “I’m not sure we’ll ever get another chance.”

Last summer, photojournalist John Partipilo conceived of the idea of documenting the remaining seven Nashville participants of the Freedom Rides, inspired by his friendship with one of those seven, Kwame Leo Lillard. There are no monuments to the seven men and women. Their names aren’t widely known and with the exception of Lillard, they didn’t hold public office and didn’t become household names.

But as teenagers and young adults, they changed America. They showed white people across the country what dignity looked like.

Through photography by Partipilo and their own words in interviews with reporters Anita Wadhwani and Dulce Torres Guzman, we share their stories.

Since Partipilo started the project, photographing the seven Freedom Riders in their homes and in the Civil Rights Room of the Nashville Public Rider, their number has decreased. Lillard died just before Christmas.

King Hollands in the Nashville Library Civil Rights Room. Hollands was anticipating a 60-year reunion of Freedom Riders in 2020 but COVID-19 prevented the event from happening. (Photo: John Partipilo)

King Hollands: An early integrator

Before he participated in the sit-in movements in 1960 that eventually led to desegregation in Nashville, King Hollands — then a junior physics major at Fisk University — saw how international students would freely sit at restaurants and lunch counters throughout the city.

“We had all these international students at Fisk, at Vanderbilt, at American Baptist College,” he said. “They were able to go to local restaurants. The American students would go, too, if they wore international garb.”

A childhood spent traveling with his parents and siblings across the country and a house frequently full of visitors from around the nation stopping in to see his father, a Church of God in Christ minister, gave Hollands a broader perspective about race than he learned in Catholic school in the segregated South. Then in 1954, after the Supreme Court’s Brown v Board of Education, Hollands landed in the first class of 14 Black students to integrate Father Ryan High School.

In February 1960, Hollands spent two weeks in jail after his arrest for sitting at the lunch counter at a downtown Nashville Woolworth’s store. Three months later, Nashville desegregated restaurants.

Hollands still has the metal cup that jailers used to serve him weak potato soup for his meals.

King Hollands poses outside the home owned by Nashville civil rights attorney Alexander Looby. Looby’s home, near Fisk University and Meharry Medical College, was bombed in April 1960 by segregationists. (Photo: John Partipilo)

The lesson Hollands would like people to take from that time is that change didn’t spring from spontaneous activism. It took months of training, education and planning. It built on movements that had come before.

“It wasn’t a flash in the pan,” he said. “The movement was already here. The sit-in movement came after that.”

As Hollands and fellow students headed to Woolworth’s that day in February, crowds spat on them, shouted and in some cases tried to attack them. They were prepared.

“Only students who had gone through training could participate,” he said. “Those who didn’t — or felt like they couldn’t not react, also had a role. They stood outside. They observed.”

He sees parallels to the Black Lives Matter movement today.

“Even though there were spontaneous protests over George Floyd, there’s planning there. The sit-in movement also had support from whites. That was important. You see that with Black Lives Matter. And there’s the emphasis on the importance of voting.”

There’s no better example of that, Hollands said, than Stacey Abrams, the former Georgia state representative whose efforts to fight voter suppression and turn out voters in that state is credited for helping elect two Democratic senators in 2020.

“This is the kind of leadership and planning that’s part of the new movement,” he said.

Hollands, now 79, is no longer involved in activism. He is a full-time caretaker to a family member at home.

But for decades he has been part of an informal Nashville civil rights veterans group that, before last year, met regularly.

“COVID has not made that possible,” he said. “I’m probably one of the younger ones in the group. We’re not tech savvy, so no Zooming. We don’t have the tools. That’s why younger people are so important. We can offer our experience. But it’s up to them now. We are the old folks.”

Frankie Henry, photographed in her home, inadvertently became involved in the Movement when Diane Nash pressed her into service. (Photo: John Partipilo)

Frankie Henry: Scarred after 60 years

Frankie Henry became involved in the civil rights movement by accident.

On Feb. 27, 1960, Henry was a freshman at Tennessee State University and had just left her tap-dancing club. She had dreams of being a Pepperette — the university’s tap dance troupe —and had her tap shoes slung over her shoulder when she was approached by a light-skinned woman at a downtown Nashville bus depot asking if Henry could accompany her.

“I asked myself, ‘what does this white girl want with me?’” she said.

As they walked through The Arcade, a strip of enclosed stores in downtown Nashville, Henry noticed several Black students sitting at whites-only counters.

“They’re going to get in trouble,” Henry commented, and then the woman began to explain that the students were in the middle of a citywide movement to protest segregation. The woman then questioned Henry.

“Are you from Nashville?” asked the woman.

“I said ‘yes,’” responded Henry.

“Can you sit with us?” asked the woman.

She eventually conceded and sat down at a diner with the mysterious woman. Henry later learned the woman was Diane Nash, a leader of the student wing of the civil rights movement. Nash had been unable to successfully protest segregation as she was often mistaken for a white woman.

Frankie Henry sitting for photojournalist John Partipilo inside the Civil Rights Room of the Nashville Public Library.

While they sat at the diner, the waitress came and went without acknowledging Henry, but bringing coffee for Nash. The women then began to discuss the movement to end segregation and the practice of nonviolent protesting.

“We’re following the teachings of Martin Luther King Jr.,” said Nash.

The women’s conversation was eventually interrupted when the waitress came back and confronted Nash as to why she was sitting with an “n-word”.

“I keep telling you we don’t serve the n-word in here,” the waitress told Nash.

“But you served me, and I’m a Negro,” Nash responded.

Henry jumped in surprise because that was the first time she learned Nash was a Black American. The women then walked down Fifth Avenue, past McLellan’s and Woolworth’s, to meet other protesters. Now in another diner, Henry continued to discuss the civil rights movement when suddenly a white woman put out a lit cigarette on Henry’s arm.

“She looked at me and I looked at her and looked down and she still had [the cigarette] there. I was thinking, I’m only 19.”

“ I said to myself this is my first day in the sit-in and I’m so sorry but I’m going to have to end this movement because I can’t take this,” said Henry.

Henry balled her fist and was about to strike the offending woman when she noticed a protester shaking his head, silently asking her not to resort to violence.

The white woman then attempted to set Henry’s poncho on fire, and when the protesters tried to leave the diner, they were arrested and taken to jail. Her parents learned from the 6 p.m. news about their daughter’s arrest, and they tried to bail her out. But Henry made the decision to stay.

“I said I’m not leaving until the rest of them leave. We haven’t done anything wrong. I didn’t know at the time that they were going to try us one by one and I would be in there for two weeks,” she said.

During that time, the protesters slept on cold steel bunk beds with no mattresses or blankets. Among the 80 of them was John Lewis, then another student who would go on to become a congressman. Locked up, they communicated with each other by using reflective compacts. They passed the time singing, chanting and talking about the movement as they stool trial one by one.

By the time Henry was released, she was given failing grades for missed classes at the university.

“They mailed my grades and told me I would never be able to attend a state-supported institution again because my grades were too low,” said Henry.

She later found out that people had attacked her parents’ house because the Tennessean newspaper had published her name, but despite her own worries about putting her family in danger, her father still supported her future involvement in the movement. He told her she did the right thing.

She eventually returned to Tennessee State in 1966 but was forced to take freshman courses over again. Henry’s education had been delayed by almost a decade, as she graduated in 1970 instead of 1962.

She spent the next few decades teaching and retired in 2006. During her career, she traveled to different schools throughout Tennessee to tell her story and teach about Black history. She was often asked for autographs, and on one occasion, she found herself teaching descendants of people who had confronted her during the civil rights movement, including the great-grandson of the director who had been ordered to give her failing grades.

She still bears the scar from the cigarette burn.

Ernest “Rip” Patton reminisces about his days in the 1960s Civil Rights Movement while walking through the Nashville Public Library. (Photo: John Partipilo)

Ernest “Rip” Patton Jr.: A drum major for justice

Ernest “Rip” Patton Jr. was a drum major in the marching band at Tennessee State when he joined the newly formed branch of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) in 1960.

In February of that year, he took part in sit-ins at the downtown Nashville lunch counters with fellow students in a nonviolent protest of segregation, an effort that succeeded in integrating downtown businesses later that year. In May 1961, Patton boarded a Greyhound bus in Nashville headed for Jackson, Mississippi to challenge segregated interstate travel.

Patton and his fellow Freedom Riders were arrested at the bus station in Jackson and sent to Parchman Farm, the Mississippi state penitentiary notorious for its brutal conditions.

He was expelled from Tennessee State for his activism. He never returned. But nearly 50 years later in 2008, the university awarded him an honorary doctorate degree.

Ernest “Rip” Patton inside the Nashville Public Library’s Civil Rights Room. (Photo: John Partipilo)

Now 80, Patton worked as a jazz musician and a truck driver, and has talked at length about his experiences since.

In 2011, he appeared in a televised interview with Oprah Winfrey describing what the students faced inside Parchman prison.

“We did a lot of singing,” he said. “They didn’t like the singing. And every time that they would threaten to do something, we would sing.”

Patton, his voice a deep baritone, began to sing: “You can take our mattress, oh yes,” in a melody that echoed spiritual music, repeating the verse several times. The audience, and Oprah, joined him.

Near her Nashville home, Etta Simpson Ray reflects on the Civil Rights Movement. (Photo: John Partipilo)

Dr. Etta Simpson Ray: Faced anger, arrest, silence

Dr. Etta Simpson Ray was one of 14 students from Tennessee State University, then called Tennessee A&I State University, who boarded a bus in 1961 headed to Birmingham then Montgomery, Alabama as part of the Freedom Rides to desegregate interstate travel.

There was a quietness about it as a whole Nashville didn’t want to talk about it. It was like — it happened, It’s over. – Dr. Etta Simpson Ray on not discussing her activism for decades after the 1960s

Like other participants, Ray went through training sessions on nonviolent resistance organized by the Nashville chapter of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee.

Etta Simpson Ray holds a copy of her friend and civil rights leader Bernard Layfayette’s book. (Photo: John Partipilo)

In Birmingham, they were met by an angry mob, then herded by police into the bus station where they spent the night with no lights, water, telephone or use of bathrooms. The next day they were driven to Montgomery, where they were again met by a mob. Ray joined a later Freedom Ride to Jackson, Miss., where she was arrested and sent to Parchman state prison for a short time before she made bond. Along with other students who participated in the Freedom Rides, Ray returned to Nashville only to be expelled from college.

In the ensuing years in Nashville, the students’ heroic actions during the civil rights movement went largely unacknowledged, Ray said during an interview with Versify, a podcast by Nashville Public Radio station WPLN and nonprofit literary organization, The Porch, last year. She didn’t speak much about her experience, even with family, for decades, she said.

“There was a quietness about it as a whole Nashville didn’t want to talk about it,” she said in the broadcast. “It was like — it happened. It’s over.”

In 2008, 47 years later, Ray and her fellow expelled students, were awarded honorary doctorate degrees from Tennessee State University.

Frederick Leonard stands in front of the Civil Rights mural at the Historic Metro Courthouse. (Photo: John Partipilo)

Frederick Leonard: A time like this

Sixty years after his imprisonment as one of the original Freedom Riders who boarded a bus in Nashville determined to desegregate the Deep South, Frederick Leonard’s thoughts turned to a Black man he only remembers as “PeeWee.”

At the notorious Parchman Farm prison in Mississippi — where Leonard and his cellmate Stokely Carmichael were sentenced to 60 days for the crime of walking into the white section of a bus depot in 1961 — Leonard would join other imprisoned Freedom Riders in singing while idling away the days.

In retaliation, white prison guards spiked their food with laxatives then turned off the water so the toilets wouldn’t flush, he said. They took away their mattresses, leaving them with nothing to sleep on but a wire frame or a hard floor.

After the second or third time guards tried to seize the mattresses, Leonard clung to his and wouldn’t let go.

“They dragged me and the mattress down the cell block,” Leonard recalled. “A Black guy there, real muscular — he was a prisoner, too, but I didn’t know him. He begged me to let go.”

“The guards were saying: ‘Get him, PeeWee, get him.’”

PeeWee, Leonard noticed, stood with tears in his eyes.

“It was really something,” Leonard said in a February phone interview. “This big Black guy started to cry. Then he started beating me. He didn’t want to do that. I could see it really hurt him.”

“I’ve always wanted to talk to PeeWee,” Leonard said. “I’ve wondered if he was still alive. I’d tell him the same thing I would have then. ‘I know it hurt you more than it hurt me.’”

Not knowing PeeWee’s real name, Leonard has never been able to find him, though he wishes he had.

Leonard was one of scores of Black and white civil rights activists who boarded buses from Nashville to Birmingham, Jackson and elsewhere to protest segregated restrooms and lunch counters at bus stations across the Jim Crow South.

In a way, we’ve done a 360. You’ve got mass incarceration, voter suppression laws and school segregation again. I look at this like, will this ever end? – Frederick Leonard

It was 1961 and Leonard’s first year at Tennessee State, where he was mentored by civil rights icons including the Rev. Kelly Miller Smith, John Lewis and Jim Lawson. They impressed upon him the need for nonviolent civil disobedience.

“They taught Jesus Christ and Mahatma Gandhi,” he said. “They also convinced me that if I fought back, I might get killed. Of course, I knew we might get killed anyway. They just kind of convinced me that you don’t want to harm people.”

Leonard wasn’t always convinced that nonviolent action was the best tool for ending segregation in the 1960’s-era South.

In 1960, Leonard was a 17-year-old high school senior at the Howard School in Chattanooga reading newspaper accounts of sit-ins at lunch counters in North Carolina and Nashville. With no college leaders or ministers to guide them, Leonard and about 30 of his Black classmates walked down to three Chattanooga variety stores and sat at segregated lunch counters after school. When they were grabbed by the back of their shirts and pulled off the counters, Leonard fought back.

Guided by mentors at TSU, Leonard said his thinking began to shift.

Frederick Leonard’s nature vacillated between the non-violent teachings of Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Rev. James Lawson and a desire to fight back. (Photo: John Partipilo)

Leonard grew up in Chattanooga with segregated schools and pools and water fountains but didn’t really understand the racism underlying those realities until he was a teen.

He recalled that when he was 11 years old and a neighbor bought a television set —the first in his neighborhood — he was dumbfounded. How was it possible that he could see people broadcast from New York then switch the channel and see people from another city on that small screen?

“That’s the same confusion I felt when I realized how people hated us because we were a different skin color. I was really a confused person when I found out people hated us because of our skin color. Growing up in segregation didn’t feel like a big deal.”

After his release from Parchman after serving 44 of 60 days — by then the prison was holding an increasing number of Freedom Riders traveling from the Northeast and elsewhere and running out of room — Leonard thought hard about what he had experienced. He wasn’t convinced nonviolence was the answer. Carmichael, an activist who became known for his call of “black power,” would quote Malcolm X.

“Stokely would say ‘why are we on our knees praying while white men are violent?”

In 1961, Leonard plotted with a half dozen other activists to burn down a white-owned Nashville store on the corner of 40th Street and Clifton Avenue that he said extended credit to its Black customers then presented bills for more than they owed.

Police foiled the attack as Leonard and other young men arrived in a station wagon with Molotov cocktails in the back.

After his arrest and the court proceedings that followed, Leonard and his then-wife moved to Detroit to start a new life. They had a baby by then. Leonard went to work at the Chrysler plant before returning to Nashville. He founded his own company selling Afro hair picks out of a building on Jefferson Street in what is now an affluent Germantown neighborhood. The company was successful, selling picks to drug stores up and down the Northeast.

He wishes he’d held onto the building to cash in on the gentrification that has turned the area into high-value residential real estate, largely occupied by non-Black residents.

Today, he walks most days — sometimes 10 miles a day — and watches “the crazies” on CNN and MSNBC news, marveling at former President Donald Trump’s challenge to legal votes cast in the presidential election.

“I thought I’d never live to see a time like this,” he said, even at 78 his voice strong and rising. “I never ever thought there’d come a time when you would see them try to disenfranchise white people. In Georgia, a lot of white people voted for Biden.”

“In a way, we’ve done a 360,” he said. “You’ve got mass incarceration, voter suppression laws and school segregation again. I look at this like, will this ever end? We will never ever become the country we should be until we stop fighting the Civil War?

“Change is going to come. I don’t think I will live to see it. At one time, I thought I would. I don’t know now. I don’t know.”

Leonard has long since set aside what he calls his youthful ideas that people were born hating him because he is Black. Racism isn’t mysterious to him anymore, he said. It is learned, taught and chosen.

“But,” he said, “to be honest, I am still confused about the television.”

Mary Jean Smith outside her North Nashville home. Another Freedom Riders, Alan Cason, gave Smith the rose bush she poses with. Cason died in March 2020 Smith could not be reached for an interview. (Photo: John Partipilo)

Kwame Leo Lillard: Rest in Power

Kwame Lillard was born in Florida but moved to Nashville with his family at a young age, becoming an integral part of the city’s fabric. He graduated from North Nashville’s Pearl High School before attending Tennessee State and joining the civil rights movement.

Lillard was an outspoken critic of a plan to route I-40 through North Nashville, a route that eventually bisected the city’s thriving Black business district along and near Jefferson Street. He was elected to Metro Council’s District 5 in 1987 and served two terms as a fiery spokesman for his community. Lillard served as a mentor for many of Nashville’s current Black leaders and elected officials and never stopped speaking out against unjust causes, including a potential police station that was slated to be sited on Jefferson Street.

The late Kwame Leo Lillard during his last visit with photojournalist John Partipilo, inside the Civil Rights Room at Nashville Public Library.

Diane Nash

“Sherrod used to say, ‘If we could only find one person, the key is to find one more person other than yourself and then things will begin to roll.’ Diane Nash Bevel was responsible for the organization of a lot of us, including myself.” – James Forman

Diane Nash emerged from the sit-in movement in Nashville, Tennessee and became one of the most esteemed student leaders and organizers of the time. Born to a middle-class Catholic family in Chicago, Nash didn’t truly understand what segregation was until she enrolled in Fisk University. When she got to Nashville, “I started feeling very confined and really resented it. Everytime I obeyed a segregation rule, I felt like I was somehow agreeing I was too inferior to go through the front door or to use the facility that the ordinary public would use.” She began searching for an organization that was fighting segregation and discovered the nonviolence workshops that Rev. James Lawson was holding a few blocks from campus. There, Nash “got a really good, excellent education in nonviolence and how to practice it” and became an unwavering believer in nonviolence as a way of life.

During sit-ins in Nashville in the spring of 1960, Nash and other members the Nashville Student Movement also sought to negotiate with restaurant owners to desegregate the lunch counters. A boycott of downtown stores by Black Nashville residents helped bring the white owners to the table. When owners admitted that they were afraid of a boycott by white customers if they desegregated, the Nashville group took them seriously. Nash and others recruited “some middle-aged white ladies who were very dignified-looking” who agreed to sit at the newly desegregated lunch counters for three weeks. “When you regard your opponent as a human being instead of somebody to fight,” Nash explained, “you can really work out problems.” The action staved off a boycott by white customers, and one of the restaurant owners even became an ally of the Nashville Student Movement’s desegregation campaign.

Nash was one of the founding members of SNCC, and few were more militant than she. On February 6, 1961, Nash and fellow SNCC leaders Ruby Doris Smith, Charles Sherrod, and Charles Jones sat-in in Rock Hill, South Carolina to support the “Rock Hill Nine,” nine students jailed after a lunch counter sit-in. Like the nine, all four refused bail. The SNCC activists believed that paying fines would only support the wrongness and injustice of their arrests.

When violence stopped the first Freedom Ride in Alabama not long after, Diane Nash was insistent that the rides continue. “The students have decided that we can’t let violence overcome,” she told movement leader Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth, “We are coming into Birmingham to continue the Freedom Ride.” She later led all the rides from Birmingham to Jackson in 1961.

Diane Nash and other sit-in leaders in Nashville, Tennessee, 1960, crmvet.org

That July, Nash was arrested for conducting nonviolent workshops for black youth in Jackson. Nash told the judge she would serve the entirety of her two-year sentence. By that point, she had married Nashville movement colleague, James Bevel, and was pregnant with their first child. Nash served ten days on a contempt of court charge, but the judge never pursued the longer sentence. “I think they just decided it was likely to be more trouble than they had banked on.”

A fieldworker, strategist, and organizer, Nash went on to help organize the 1963 Birmingham desegregation campaign and worked alongside Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and SCLC during the Selma Voting Rights Campaign.

Sources

Taylor Branch, Parting the Waters: America in the King Years, 1954 – 1963 (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1988).

Clayborne Carson, In Struggle: SNCC and the Black Awakening of the 1960s (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1995).

Clayborne Carson, et al., The Eyes on the Prize Civil Rights Reader: Documents, Speeches, and Firsthand Accounts from the Black Freedom Struggle (New York: Penguin Books, 1991).

Charles E. Cobb, Jr., On the Road to Freedom: A Guided Tour of the Civil Rights Movement (Chapel Hill, NC: Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 2008).

Cheryl Lynn Greenberg, ed., A Circle of Trust: Remembering SNCC (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1998).

Diane Nash, “They are the Ones Who Got Away,” Hands on the Freedom Plow: Personal Accounts by Women in SNCC, edited by Faith S. Holsaert, et al. (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2012).

Lynne Olson, Freedom’s Daughters: The Unsung Heroines of the Civil Rights Movement from 1830 to 1970 (New York: Scribner, 2001).


Diane Nash [30:05], Pt. B “The Redemptive Community: The Sit-Ins, the Freedom Rides, and the Birth of SNCC,” We Shall Not Be Moved Conference, 1988, Trinity College


“Miss. Halts Expectant Mother’s Jail Try,” The Student Voice, June 1962, WHS


Letter from Robert Talbert to Diane Nash Bevel, June 19, 1962, Amzie Moore Papers, WHS


Letter from Diane Nash to Betsy, January 17, 1963, Amzie Moore Papers, WHS

Click Here to View Document
Proposal for Action in Montgomery, September 1963, crmvet.org

Interview with Diane Nash by Blackside, Inc., November 12, 1985, Eyes on the Prize, Henry Hampton Collection, Washington University


Diane Nash

Civil Rights Activities- 19560 became a founding member of Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) -1960, participated in non-violent sit-ins at Nashville downtown lunch counters leading up to the desegregation of lunch counters in May 10, 1960-Arrested in Febuary of 1961 for sitting at lunch counters, known as the "Rock Hill Nine" -Helped find the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee on April of 1960 in Raleigh, North Carolina -Coordinated & participated in the 1961 Freedom Riders in hope to break Jim Crow Laws & to desegregate the south- Became a full time instructor, strategist, and organizer for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC)- Married James Bevel in 1961 & moved to Mississippi & organized voter registrations & helped desegregate schools-For her civil rights work, her husband and her were arrested about a dozen times-Husband and Nash won Rosa Parks Award - Helped in the Selma Right to vote movement that lead to the Voting Rights Act in 1965-In 1966 she participated in Vietnam Peace Movement-In the 1970's she fought for women rights & continues do speak out till this day

Freedom, by definiton, is people realizing that they are their own leaders

Biographical Information Birthday: May 15, 1938, Chicago, Illinois (76 years old)Spouse: James Bevel m. 1961 (1935 - 2008)Children: Douglass Bevel & Sherri BevelEducation: Hyde Park High School, Fisk University, & Howard University

Nash helped bring equality to all people of all races in the South with the Freedom Rides and the Dinner Sit-Ins. She has helped people to see that all races are equal.

Life Timeline-Born May 15, 1938 in Chicago -M,. James Bevel in 1961-Went to Howard University 1956 -Moved to Jackson, Mississippi-Transfered to Fisk University 1957 -Worked on school and voter -Elected chair of Student Central rights with the SCLCCommittee -Awarded Rosa Parks award in 1965-Febuary 13, 1960, started to -Helped participate in Selma participate in Dinner Sit-ins Right-to-vote movement-May 10, 1960, helped officiall -66, joined Vietnam peace desegregate lunch counters movement -Organized & participated in 1961 -1980's fought for women rightsFreedom Rides -Now in chicago speaking about social change

Nash and some other Civil Rights Activistis sitting at a white only dinner counter.


Legacy and Later Years

After the Civil Rights Movement, Nash returned to her hometown of Chicago, where she still lives today. She worked in real estate and has participated in activism related to fair housing and pacifism alike.

With the exception of Rosa Parks, male civil rights leaders have typically received most of the credit for the freedom struggles of the 1950s and ’60s. In the decades since, however, more attention has been paid to women leaders like Ella Baker, Fannie Lou Hamer, and Diane Nash.

In 2003, Nash won the Distinguished American Award from the John F. Kennedy Library and Foundation. The following year, she received the LBJ Award for Leadership in Civil Rights from the Lyndon Baines Johnson Library and Museum. And in 2008, she won the Freedom Award from the National Civil Rights Museum. Both Fisk University and the University of Notre Dame have awarded her honorary degrees.

Nash’s contributions to civil rights have also been captured in film. She appears in the documentaries “Eyes on the Prize” and the “Freedom Riders,” and in the 2014 civil rights biopic “Selma”, in which she’s portrayed by actress Tessa Thompson. She is also the focus of historian David Halberstam's book “Diane Nash: The Fire of the Civil Rights Movement.”


Watch the video: Freedom Riders 2010


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