The Tennessee Board of Regents finally got it right Friday when it approved a resolution permitting Tennessee State University to award honorary degrees to 14 students expelled more than four decades ago for participating in the freedom rides that helped define the nation’s civil rights era. The decision reverses an earlier and shortsighted decision that the university should honor the students but not award them degrees.
The students at the then-Tennessee A’I will be awarded honorary Doctor of Humane Letters degrees in a ceremony that rights a tremendous wrong. The so-called freedom riders left the school to join blacks and whites on the freedom rides – bus trips staged to call attention to the hateful refusal to integrate interstate travel facilities in many places in the Deep South. Those who rode the buses did so at great risk.
Many of the riders were severely beaten as they emerged from buses. Arrest, for violation of arcane laws or for no reason at all, was common. For the Tennessee group, arrest meant expulsion from college under a state edict passed a year or so earlier that forbade students to take part in such activities. Indeed, the 14 students were in a Mississippi jail when they were mailed letters telling them they faced expulsion.
The Tennessee regents had an opportunity to do the same for the students at the Nashville school, but a majority of the board initially balked. Their argument was facile, but not convincing. Those opposed said awarding the degrees to the freedom riders would cheapen an honorary degree, which is typically awarded for a lifetime of achievement. What nonsense.
The names of the 14 Tennessee A’I students are not as well known as the icons of the civil rights movement, but that does not diminish their accomplishments. Their bravery is worthy of commemoration. The students’ purposeful decision to risk all to join others in the effort to make America live up to its promise of equality for all was a singular act of courage that is undeniably worthy of the recognition an honorary degree confers.
The Chattanooga Times Associated Press