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Tennessee Higher Education Officials Deny Honor For `Freedom Riders’

The rejection by Tennessee higher education officials of a proposal to award honorary degrees to 13 former Tennessee State University students expelled from the college in 1961 because of the students’ participation in the historic freedom rides has stirred criticism of the action from the college’s president, alumni and some state lawmakers.

“I never imagined the request would be voted down,” said Melvin N. Johnson, president of Tennessee State, referring to the 7-5-1 vote last week by the Tennessee Board of Regents to reject the honorary degree proposal. It was made by Johnson, at the suggestion of several alumni and Nashville civic leaders, including retired Nashville newspaper publisher John Seigenthaler, a top civil rights enforcement official of the Justice Department during the Kennedy administration.

“I continue to be hopeful that the … students who were so disrespected in 1961 by the education system of Tennessee, who were expelled from an institution of higher learning because they dared take action to create a better world, will one day walk across the Tennessee State University stage with TSU diplomas in hand … .It is past time for us to heal the soul of our great state. It’s time to ask the freedom riders for forgiveness; it’s time to heal the wounds,” Johnson said. 

The action by the board of regents came as state and local government bodies across the country have taken dramatic steps over the past decade toward social reconciliation over the issues of slavery in the 1800s and legalized racial segregation in the 1900s, the latter social policy that eventually lead to the freedom rides across the South. The rides and bus station picketing were aimed at ending racial segregation in interstate transportation.

The vote also came as citizens across Tennessee were preparing to honor the late Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, assassinated 40 years ago this week in Memphis. King and the student civil rights activists were in lockstep in their goals in the 1960’s and tactics — non-violent, peaceful protests.

“It’s outrageous in this day and time that they (the board of regents) would be so shortsighted as to not recognize these alums in that way,” said Memphis native and entrepreneur Mabra Holeyfield, a 1965 graduate of formerly Tennessee State Agricultural & Industrial College, as the historically Black college was know then.

The freedom riders proposals grew out of a celebration in Nashville this time a year ago of their contribution to ending racial segregation in the South. As the idea evolved into a more serious proposal late last year, regents began discussing it informally as part of their review of a 2004 policy that limited the awarding of honorary degrees to two per year per institution.

The matter was vetted several times in ad-hoc committee meetings in February, with lively debate from many different perspectives, according to board of regents officials. Some regents questioned the appropriateness of awarding so many degrees at one time, suggesting it would undermine the expiring 2004 policy aimed at reversing a perceived diminishing value of honorary degrees. There was concern voiced about the academic standing of some of the students. There also a question of why one of the original 14 riders was being excluded because of legal problems he had later in life.

At last week’s meeting, the board was offered two proposals. One, sponsored by member Judy Gooch, would have waived the policy and allowed Tennessee State to award the honorary degrees. It was rejected with no debate. The second, a watered-down version of the original, authorized the school to “organize a celebration, recognition and honor” for the 13 students.

“It is unquestionable and unequivocal that we desire to honor the TSU students who became known as freedom riders,” said member Agenia Clark, head of the Cumberland Valley Girl Scout Council, in offering her alternative. The alternative was approved by the 13 members present, with two members abstaining.

Johnson, TSU president, said the school will “abide” by the decision.

The board of regents made no formal comment about its decision. Several state legislators questioned the decision and have promised to give it a quick review.

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