To most students and teachers on campuses across the nation, the name Pauline Knight Ofosu would draw a blank stare if they were asked to identify her. Such is the fate of people who make history that is forgotten generations later.
That ignorance of contemporary American history did not cause Ofosu to feel that the efforts of her and her one-time college classmates in the 1960s were in vain. They knew they had a profound impact of America history—forever.
Pauline Knight was a junior at Nashville’s Tennessee A & I State College (TSU) when, in 1961, she joined a group of TSU classmates and students from other colleges to peacefully protest racial segregation on buses like Greyhound and Trailways and in their bus stations.
Known as the Freedom Riders, the students cut classes to board the interstate buses in Nashville destined for New Orleans and points in between to test whether state and local governments were honoring a U.S. Supreme Court ruling barring racial discrimination in interstate commerce.
On their trips, they found the political rulers of the South did not intend to surrender the region’s racial separation laws peacefully. Knight and her fellow students were met by angry mobs of White protesters trying to stop their travels and local law enforcement officers who arrested and jailed them. Knight and most of her classmates were expelled from Tennessee State by a sympathetic university president under severe pressure from his governing board.
“I never understood what ‘called’ me, but I felt I had to do something,” Knight Ofosu said in a 2008 interview about her participation in the Freedom Rides. “I didn’t ask to go,” she said, recalling she simply told her parents one day she was leaving and would not be back that evening. “I simply said ‘I am a Freedom Rider today.’ It was bigger than me.”
The Freedom Riders’ efforts eventually succeeded, after numerous arrests of many participants, beatings of some and the firebombing of a bus full of passengers on a clear day. In the process and, unknowingly, the Freedom Riders show of courage had made them history makers of their generation.
As important, Knight and the other 13 TSU students expelled eventually regained admission to TSU after their attorneys, Z. Alexander Looby and Avon Williams, filed suit on their behalf seeking reinstatement.
In 2008, TSU moved to “right” what then TSU President Melvin Johnson called a “wrong.” The university and its supporters persuaded a reluctant Tennessee Board of Regents to honor the students with honorary doctorate degrees in humane letters from TSU, signaling the institution’s acknowledgment of the good for society of the actions by Knight, by then Pauline Knight Ofosu, and her peers. Ofosu wept with joy before and after the honors program.
Pauline Knight Ofosu, the quietly effective civil rights icon of her generation, died Monday near her home in Rex, Georgia. She was 73.
“She came across as one of the most serious people in the movement,” said Congressman John Lewis the civil rights legend who came to know Knight as a fellow Freedom Rider. “She was focused, steady, dependable, reliable,” said Lewis who added that Knight was “always a lady in the way she carried herself, the way she spoke.”
“She was willing to go the last mile to help, especially the young,” said Dr. William “Bill” Harbour, one of the TSU Freedom Riders. Harbour, once a cell mate for more than a month with then student activist now Congressman Lewis, remained a close friend of Ofosu till death. In recent years, they had teamed up for talks about the civil rights movement of the 1960s, Harbour said.
TSU history professor Elizabeth McClain, who knew Ofosu and participated in the historic “sit-ins” in Nashville, characterized her as “a beautiful person, daring, once she made up her mind it was something she had to.” McClain also helped in the effort to secure honorary degrees for all 21 TSU students who participated in the Freedom Rides.
Mary Jane Smith, one of the TSU Freedom Riders who was also honored with a doctorate, said many of the students honored in the 2008 ceremony used the occasion to renew their friendships.
“We have all been able to stay in touch since 2008 … like we had never been apart all these years,” said Smith, referring to the fact that many of the original group of TSU Freedom Riders had not seen one another in years before the TSU event. “Pauline was about one of the sweetest people I know,” said Smith. “She was part of our family. She had a way with words that could move you.”
In her 2008 interview for The Tennessee Tribune, Ofosu said she felt a mix of happiness and sadness.
“I’m happy history will record this event,” Ofosu said. “But, I’m still concerned I’ve never seen this many people hungry and this many people in the streets. I can’t understand our wealth and how people are treated. We’ve come a long way, and yet we have to straighten up our act so we can go a little bit further.”
Ofosu, who had lived in Rex, Georgia, since 1997, said in 2008 that her visit to her hometown (Nashville) was her first since 1961. During her career she held several positions with the federal government before retiring in 1994. Close friends say they understood she was to be cremated and they knew of no plans for a funeral.