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Students taught us a lesson in the '60s

Nearly 47 years ago, a group of students from various ­Southern colleges and ­universities, probably without telling their parents, climbed aboard buses for a violent ­destination in the history books.

Called Freedom Riders, the group of young white and black students decided to test the new 1961 U.S. Supreme Court order that banned segregation on interstate transportation.

Integration laws didn't go over very well with the entrenched powers of the South back then. And having blacks riding in the front of the bus and whites in the back, as the Freedom ­Riders often traveled, didn't go over well at all.

There was nothing in our country's history that would have indicated to those college students that these trips, set up by the Congress for Racial Equality, would be any different.

Several trips were made, all but the last ending with students being beaten and jailed.

After the first two buses were attacked, a group of students from Vanderbilt University, Fisk University and Tennessee Agricultural and Industrial State College, now known as Tennessee State University, decided they had to begin another trip to the Deep South so desegregation could get a foothold.

Black students at Fisk and Tennessee State had been instrumental in integrating lunch counters in Nashville despite violent attacks, some ending in student deaths. They had been baptized in reality and wanted more progress.

Fourteen Tennessee State students and others boarded the second wave of buses, after the first had met with fire bombings and violence.

The courage that must have taken.

The students were ­arrested in Mississippi, tried before a judge who literally turned his back to them, then thrown into prison for at least 60 days.

While they were jailed, Tenn. Gov. Buford ­Ellington ruled that the students should be expelled and ­ordered letters be sent to them informing them of that move.

All Tennessee schools did just that. Some of the students learned of their expulsions from those letters, and others learned when they tried to enroll again.

Starting in the 1990s and until as recently as last May, at least six institutions, including Vanderbilt and Fisk, revoked those ­expulsions, ­giving their students honorary doctorates to acknowledge their bravery as late as last May. At Vanderbilt, one of those students returned two years ago as a distinguished professor.

Tennessee State held out and did nothing.

Some Freedom Riders did return to Tennessee State; some went to other schools, and some just gave up on ­getting a higher education.

The current Tennessee State president, Melvin N. Johnson, thought they had been treated unfairly and wanted to rectify the situation.

He asked the ­Tennessee Board of Regents, the ­governing body of the state university and ­community college system, to allow ­Tennessee State to give those 14 students honorary doctorates in humane letters.

A month ago, the regents respectfully declined, with a vote of 7 to 5.

That didn't go over very well.

Just as more and more Freedom Riders boarded buses in 1961 heading south, culminating in more than 300 arrests by summer's end, the number of people protesting the regents' decision grew.

Faculty, staff, alumni, community leaders and residents, notables from other state colleges and universities, folks from throughout the country, and, of course, Tennessee State students bombarded board members, urging them to change their minds.

The news media chimed in also, giving the movement a wider public showcase.

Finally, on April 25, the regents met again and unanimously granted the degrees. No one is sure when the degrees will be bestowed, but several ceremonies and ­activities are in the works.

Why did it take so long for any of the universities to see the value in what those students did in 1961?

Sometimes we can be so very slow in acknowledging the true struggle embedded in the fight for civil rights.

If nothing else, those 14 Freedom Riders and their fellow participants in civil disobedience that summer taught the rest of us — and especially the people in the Tennessee system of higher education ­— how not to ­accept no for an answer.

An honorary degree is a small price to pay for that lesson.

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