NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Forty-seven years ago, 14 black students from Tennessee State University were beaten and arrested during the Freedom Rides that helped integrate the South.
For their courage, they were expelled from school, and informed of that decision by letter while still jailed in Mississippi.
On Sept. 18, the historically black university made amends by presenting the former students with honorary degrees, three of them posthumously.
“It’s been such an honor. Higher than any expectation I had,” said Sandra Mitchell, 60, who accepted the Doctor of Human Letters degree on behalf of her late husband, William B. Mitchell Jr.
She recalled breaking down in tears when a university representative called to tell her about the award.
The Freedom Rides were bus trips designed to challenge segregation in areas of the deep South that were unwilling to accept a Supreme Court ruling that found the segregation of interstate travel facilities — such as bus station waiting areas, restrooms and restaurants — to be illegal.
According to the university, the Freedom Riders from TSU, then Tennessee Agricultural and Industrial State University, were members of the Nashville Student Group, which had successfully integrated the city’s lunch counters and movie theaters.
“The Freedom Riders serve to remind this generation of a time when people were willing to risk their reputations, their careers and their lives (for the greater good),” TSU President Melvin Johnson told the gathering of about 5,000.
Allen Cason Jr., 66, was one of those receiving the honorary degree. He said he spent his 19th birthday in jail because of the Freedom Rides. After the Sept. 18 ceremony he recalled an angry reception for the riders in Montgomery.
“When the bus pulled into the terminal we heard them announce over the speaker ‘The Freedom Riders have just arrived,’ and a mob came out,” said Cason, who never graduated.
A group of his fellow students sued TSU and had their expulsions overturned. Four eventually graduated from the school, TSU said.
Keynote speaker C.T. Vivian, also a veteran of the civil rights movement, said Nashville and the nation were better off because of the sacrifices of the former TSU students.
“We made the nation understand that law must be based on morality,” he said.
The idea of granting the honorary degrees began in 2005 when a group of TSU students began researching the Freedom Riders. It gained momentum during “Freedom Ride 2007,” when buses of area college students traveled to Alabama towns involved in the civil rights movement.
But the Tennessee Board of Regents voted in March of this year against awarding the degrees. Board members who opposed the idea said honorary degrees were meant to recognize a lifetime of achievement, not a one-time action.
That vote was widely criticized and the board unanimously voted to reverse the decision the following month.