“God is the author of segregation, Gen 9: 25-27.” Yet another placard held by white demonstrators displayed its message on one of the photos in the Nashville Public Library in Nashville, TN.
But most of today was about something else…and if there was a theme that could tie it all together…it would be “Remembering the Freedom Riders.” We met with a number of Freedom Riders—Rip Patton, Kwame Lillard, Matthew Walker, Joseph Charles Jones, Etta Marie Simpson, and Joy Reagan Leonard. All of them eloquently articulated their stories and recalled with pride their participation in the freedom rides. They shared, often untold experiences on their Freedom Ride. I also asked various individuals about Governor John Patterson of Alabama who was interviewed in “The Freedom Riders.” I thought it was a carefully orchestrated interview and he steered away from any kind of apology for the poor treatment of civil rights protesters in Alabama under his tenure in the 1950s and 1960s. For the moment it seems that this is all we have got, opined one observer and civil rights activist.
At the Nashville Public Library, a beautiful building with wonderful facilities for reading and research, we observed the launch of an exhibition “Threads of a Story: History Inspiring Art.” The German artist Charlotta Janssen, had made oil portraits of individuals, white and black, men and women involved in the Civil Rights movement from their mugshots or booking photographs. Janssen’s work represents newer strands in the story of the civil rights movement…suggesting that there are different ways of remembering the event…and this perhaps has a lot to do with where we are coming from. Janssen is from Germany and this exhibition was about her interior journey about how she became part of this story of civil rights and her thankfulness of being engage…She talked about how Barack Obama’s election made her feel part of the unfolding story of America… Charlotta’s artistic intervention in this story is indicative of immigrant retellings of the civil rights story, and room must be made for such imaginations…and there will be many more similar interventions in days to come. There might be disputes about the content of the paintings, as different individuals and groups have their own versions of what took place in the civil rights movement or how it should be remembered. The Civil Rights is interesting because many of its actors are still alive which means that there many more ways to remember and forget the movement. The living survivors have different recollections of the event and in Nashville, I realized there was a feeling that Nashville’s role in the movement must never be diminished and needs to reemphasized. I could go on here…but how we remember the civil rights movement and represent it, is fascinating.
Later, Kwame Lillard took us around on a tour of the city of Nashville and told about the important places which were sites of the civil right movement. This included a visit to the Nashville National Cemetery where we visited the graves of the colored troops. We also visited Oprah Winfrey’s father, Vernon Winfrey, who greeted the group and spoke a few words. After this we drove to Cincinnati reaching our hotel by 10.40pm. Tomorrow is the last day of our tour.
We watched documentaries like “Road to Freedom” and “Prom Night in Mississippi.” The latter documentary was about film actor Morgan Freeman’s efforts to desegregate a high school prom event in Charleston, Mississippi. Believe it or not…as late as 2008 (!) the school had separate prom dances for African Americans and white students! In the end an integrated prom dance was held, which Freeman paid for. However, an all white prom was held as well, and attended by a small group of students. We also watched a movie, based on true events called “Blood Done Sign My Name” about the murder of a Vietnam veteran by a white businessman and the case that followed.

With Rip Patton, Nashville, TN.

Freedom Rider Kwame Lillard

Joseph Charles Jones, Freedom Rider alongside his portrait by artist Charlotta Janssen

Joy Reagan Leonard alongside her portrait.

The Graves of "Colored Troops" at the Nashville National Cemetery with a commemorative statue made by Roy Butler.