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Tennessee State Freedom Riders Get Overdue Recognition

Pauline Knight was a 21-year-old college junior when the chance to help change history beckoned.

“I never understood what ‘called’ meant, but I felt I had to do something,” Knight said in a recent interview from her home in Georgia. “I didn’t ask to go. I simply said ‘I am a Freedom Rider today.’ It was bigger than me.”

Knight was reflecting on the historic Freedom Rides of 1961, a series of ‘test’ rides she and hundreds of college students took on Greyhound and Trailways buses across the South. They were trying to force an end to racial segregation in interstate transportation on buses and trains and in their passenger stations.

For her part, Knight rode the Greyhound from Nashville to Montgomery, Ala., and Montgomery to Jackson, Miss., where, upon her arrival, she was arrested and jailed with other students, some who came before her and some who came afterward.

During her 42 days in jail, Knight received notice from her school – Tennessee A&I State College – that she and 13 other Tennessee State ‘Freedom Riders’ were being expelled for “misconduct.”

They sued the school and won re-admittance. Separately, the government eventually issued an order barring the segregation the students protested. The students had won a victory for justice in their country but lost their school’s confidence and support in the process.

This month, Tennessee State will seek to “right a grievous wrong,” as it calls its actions 47 years ago. It will award honorary Doctorate of Humane Letters degrees to Knight, now Pauline Ofosu, and the 13 other Tennessee State Freedom Riders, four of them now deceased. State and local officials and a Greyhound representative are expected to participate, with the noted civil rights veteran, Rev. C.T. Vivian offering the keynote speech.

Awarding of the honorary degrees is one of a series of events spread over three days, Sept. 18-20, aimed at making amends to the TSU Freedom Riders, most of whom eventually graduated and have not seen each other together since the early 1960s.

The degrees will be awarded at convocation Sept. 18. A Freedom Riders Historical Perspective symposium, to which all high school students in the city of Nashville have been invited, is set for the next day. A half-time tribute, featuring TSU’s highly acclaimed Aristocrat of Bands, is planned during Saturday’s football game against Eastern Kentucky.

TSU officials said they plan to use the events “as a starting point” for an ongoing effort to “remind this generation of students of a time when young people were willing to risk reputation, careers, their freedom and their lives for a high cause.”

“It’s been a long time for some of us,” Knight, a retired medical technologist, said of the upcoming honor.

Other student Freedom Riders being awarded degrees include: Catherine Burks Brooks, Allen Cason Jr., William E. Harbour, Larry F. Hunter, Frederick Leonard, Lester McKinnie, now Baba El Senzengakulu Zulu, Pauline Knight Ofoso, Ernest Patton, Etta Simpson Ray, Mary Jane Smith, and, posthumously, Charles Butler, William Mitchell, Frances Wilson and Clarence M. Wright.

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