August 25, 2021 (belated)


This civil rights icon from Nashville—Dr. Ernest “Rip” Patton, Jr.—died at age 81 this week. As a student at Tennessee A&I (now Tennessee State University) in 1960, he attended nonviolence workshops led by Rev. James Lawson and participated in the sit-ins to desegregate downtown Nashville lunch counters.  The next year, he was one of the first group of Freedom Riders who went by Greyhound Bus to Jackson, Mississippi, were they were arrested. They spent 40 days in the notorious state penitentiary at Parchman Farm.  He and 13 other A&I students were expelled from the school after their release.

About ten years ago, the Metro Arts Commission got funding to create an art project commemorating the 1960 downtown sit-ins.  The proposed location was a small green area outside the former F. W. Woolworth’s store on Church Street.

They set up a public committee to work with their staff on selecting an artist proposal for the small space. I was invited to represent the downtown area.  There were a series of meetings—and I was thrilled that “Rip” Patton and John Seigenthaler were both on the committee.  Seigenthaler had retired in 1991 after many years as editor of the Tennessean.  He was a close friend and staff member of General Attorney Robert Kennedy, and was sent to Alabama to quell any violence against the young student Freedom Riders.  In trying to help a student, he was hit over the head with an iron pipe and hospitalized several days.

Over the years, he and “Rip” Patton had become friends.  Patton told me that the two of them often traveled across the state together to talk to public school students about the civil rights movement, what had been done and what still was to be done.  It was delightful to watch them laugh and talk together.

Patton had worked as a truck driver and jazz musician much of his life.  He talked about how important music was to the civil rights movement and how the Freedom Riders sang in their jail cells. In 2008, his friend Seigenthaler worked with Congressman John Lewis (who had also been a Nashville student activist and Freedom Rider) as they successfully lobbied Tennessee State University to award honorary doctorates to the 14 Freedom Riders (including Patton) who had been expelled after going to prison in Mississippi.

These two heroes insisted that the proposed art project was far too small to commemorate the downtown Nashville sit-ins, and they prevailed.  The committee was disbanded, the Metro Arts Council went back to the drawing board and in 2017 the Witness Walls were unveiled in a more spacious area on the Metro Courthouse grounds. Seigenthaler died in 2014, but “Rip” Patton enjoyed visiting the Witness Walls as one who had an active role in those historic actions.  And just this summer, part of downtown’s 5th Avenue was renamed Rep. John Lewis Way.  

Heroes deserve significant memorials. I’m grateful to have been in the same room with heroes like Dr. “Rip” Patton and John Seigenthaler. Like Rep. John Lewis, they both got into some “good trouble.”

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