NASHVILLE, Tenn. — The Tennessee Board of Regents has changed its decision to deny honorary degrees to 14 Tennessee State University students who were expelled for participating in Freedom Rides of the 1960s civil rights movement.
The board voted unanimously today to change its March vote, which brought criticism from civil rights activists, and support a resolution that permits the university to award the degrees.
Board members who opposed the idea at the time explained their decision by saying honorary degrees are meant to recognize a lifetime of achievement, not a one-time action.
Members did not give reasons for the change.
“The reason for the vote is not important,” said board member Judy Gooch. “What is important is that we go forward, turn attention away from the board and to the students who should be appropriately honored.”
Gov. Phil Bredesen said he had talked with Regents Chancellor Charles Manning about the initial vote and that the board’s latest action was “the right thing.”
“It’s a very good result,” Bredesen said.
First Amendment Center Founder John Seigenthaler, who was attacked in 1961 by a mob of Klansmen while attempting to aid Freedom Riders in Montgomery, Ala., commended the board for reconsidering its vote.
“I congratulate Governor Bredesen and the board on their action righting a 47-year-old wrong,” he said.
The Freedom Rides were bus trips designed to challenge segregation in areas of the deep South that were unwilling to accept a Supreme Court order integrating interstate travel facilities.
Other Nashville Freedom Riders have received honors in recent years.
Diane Nash was given an honorary doctor of humanities degree by Fisk University last May and the Rev. James Lawson, who was expelled from Vanderbilt in 1960 for his participation in civil rights protests, returned to the school in 2006 as a distinguished professor.
Lawson said he knows some of the TSU Freedom Riders and that their honor is deserving.
“I’m very pleased that this is being done finally,” he said. “They are people of sterling, extraordinary character and vision. The whole state should celebrate that quality of citizen in our country.”
State Rep. Barbara Cooper, a Memphis Democrat and chair of the Tennessee Black Caucus, applauded board members for the vote change.
“It’s something that needed to be done,” said Cooper, who along with other lawmakers sent a letter to the board asking that its vote be reconsidered. “They stood up for what they believed in, and we’re reaping the benefits of what they did.”
Others asking the board to reconsider its vote included students and faculties at Austin Peay State University in Clarksville and Middle Tennessee State University in Murfreesboro, both schools that are governed by the Board of Regents.
“I’m proud of the state,” said the Rev. James Thomas, pastor of Jefferson Street Missionary Baptist Church in Nashville. “I’m proud of the college students ... who wanted to do what was right. It’s a step for the state.”