Friday, February 26, 2016

The College Students Who Risked Everything

"Nineteen-year-olds don't pray about much, they make things happen."
Guardsmen surround a Freedom Riders Bus, May 1961

"Nineteen-year-olds don't pray about much, they make things happen," Kwame Lillard told a rapt audience. Both he and Matthew Walker, Jr. spoke of their experiences as Freedom Riders in the 60s to a full room yesterday at Vol State. 

They certainly did make things happen. Under leaders such as Jim Lawson and Reverend Kelly Miller they attended nonviolent workshops and sit-in protests as their ranks swelled in numbers. An incident of violence against a student protestor actually helped to spur the movement on. Support for their vision grew. 

"Sacrifice always does that," explained Lillard. "We're a nation built on sacrifice. If not us, who? If not now, when?"

"We could not allow violence to overrule nonviolence," added Matthew Walker.

Six thousand people marched on downtown Nashville and confronted the mayor after that incident. When pressed, the mayor finally admitted that he thought segregation was wrong. Then the community decided to hit them where it hurts the most - the pocketbook - as they began an economic strike. Soon Nashville became the first southern city to integrate its lunch counters. 

They also related their harrowing experiences on the Freedom Rides buses through Alabama and Mississippi. Both Lillard and Walker made a point to mention that these buses were integrated. "50% of the riders were white, and 50% were black," said Lillard, holding up a poster that showed all the pictures of the former protestors. "It's important to note that."

The two men ended the talk on a humorous story. One day they decided to go swimming at the nicest white public pool in the city, which at that time was at Centennial Park. "We walked up in our swim trunks carrying towels and said we want to go swimming," they remembered with a chuckle. "So the mayor drained all the public pools in Nashville to keep us out. They filled in the one at Centennial and built the art center over it."

Gaynell Buffinet Payne is a writer, single mother, and student at Volunteer State Community College. She also blogs for Vol State's Returning Adult Learners.

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