Day 8 – 20890

June 19th, 2021

Freedom Rider and sit-in activist Dr. Ernest “Rip” Patton spoke with us about his Civil Rights era experiences today. His dynamic presence filled the Civil Rights Room at the Nashville Public Library. I have been so impressed with all of the heroes who have shared with us on this tour. They have been generous with their time and energy as they exerted emotional labor, sharing vulnerably and reliving the trauma of their experiences.

Dr. Patton participated in sit-is in Nashville, Tennessee alongside activists like John Lewis, Bernard Lafayette, and Jim Farmer. He learned nonviolent tactics with Rev. Jim Lawson. He was in the 3rd group of Freedom Riders to leave Nashville on May 23, 1961. He taught us specific tactics of the movement and the long-term repercussions of civil rights activists’ arrests.

Dr. Patton was eventually arrested and moved to Parchman Penitentiary in Mississippi. His arrest number was 20890. Employing the “Jail, No Bail” tactic, he and 26 other Freedom Riders refused bail to fill jails. In Parchman, the student activists faced hardships including once-a-week showers, crowded cells, and prison guards removing their mattresses. This removal meant sleeping on a concrete floor or metal frame of the bunk beds.

To maintain morale, they changed the lyrics to popular Civil Rights songs (which often originated as songs from enslaved people or as gospel music). For example, “Ain’t gonna let no mattress turn me around, Turn me around, Turn me around…” To remind themselves that they were standing alongside other activists, they sang, “Buses are Comin’” and listed cities where Freedom Riders were riding. When prison guards told them to stop singing, Bernard Lafayette turned to other activists and stage whispered, “What are they going to do, throw us in jail?!”

Singing these songs was important for increasing morale but also for combatting the humiliating experiences of arrest and imprisonment. Singing allowed activists to remain a sense of dignity and empowerment.

Dr. Rip reminded us of the long-term repercussions of Civil Rights activism. You had a prison record, which you had to report in job applications. It set back your college careers. Universities like Tennessee State University (TSU) expelled students who participated in activism like the Freedom Rides. When eventually readmitted, class credits were taken off their transcripts! Decades later, in 2008, TSU did grant these Freedom Riders honorary doctorates.

I am fascinated with the tactics of the Civil Rights Movement because I want to learn from these human rights activists for inspiration for current and future social movements. In addition to singing and refusing bail, they also employed daydream thinking to endure violence peacefully. Jim Lawson taught them to daydream while in hostile situations, i.e. if white Southerners were pressing lit cigarettes to burn your skin, leaving permanent scars. A brilliant but heartbreaking tactic.

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