Fifty years after college students across the country took part in the legendary Freedom Rides, bravely traveling the segregated South via commercial buses in an attempt to accelerate the end of institutionalized racial discrimination, some Metro Council members have race on the mind.
Nine original Freedom Riders, all former students at Fisk and Tennessee State universities who ventured into either Alabama or Mississippi — the two most resistant strongholds of the old Deep South — watched last Tuesday as a modern, Southern, racially diverse legislative body conducted city business.
A half-century ago, Freedom Riders were labeled troublemakers. Police arrested and beat them. Members of the Ku Klux Klan attacked them savagely. U.S. Attorney General Robert Kennedy, though sympathetic to the civil rights movement, publicly criticized the riders’ actions as bringing more harm than good.
But today we honor them, just like the Metro Council did last week through a standard proclamation, commemorating the 50th anniversary to the date of one the key historical moments that led to the eventual upheaval of the South’s government-protected segregation.
The group of nine Freedom Riders appreciated the evening’s honor, yet they delivered a message of their own: After decades of neglect, it was time to erect a monument or memorial honoring Nashville’s sometimes-forgotten civil rights past — from the essential role of local Freedom Riders to the city’s instrumental lunch-counter sit-ins on Fifth Avenue.
“Nashville had a particularly effective civil rights movement,” said Matthew Walker, a former Fisk student who took part in the Freedom Rides and addressed the council last week. “We in Nashville were the first Southern city to integrate its public lunch counters. And the fact that Nashville students brought the Freedom Rides back to life after CORE [Congress of Racial Equality] lobbied — these two facts make Nashville preeminent when it comes to cities with civil rights activities.
“Most major Southern cities have monuments,” Walker said. “Why can’t we get up to date as far as a monument, memorial, sculpture, whatever — something substantial located in a prominent place downtown that would commemorate the activities of those who took part in the civil rights movement?”
With council members watching, Walker hit on something many in Nashville’s African-American community have thought for some time — that city government isn’t appropriately commemorating black history.
The Freedom Riders’ appeal comes after the council’s Black Caucus agreed unanimously earlier this month to sponsor an ordinance that would rename downtown Union Street “Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard” to pay homage to Nashville’s Freedom Riders and sit-ins history.
The caucus is expected to meet June 2 to decide when members plan to move forward with the ordinance, spearheaded by At-large Councilman Jerry Maynard.
Part of downtown Eighth Avenue was recently named in honor of Rosa Parks, but nowhere in Nashville is there a corridor dedicated to the most influential civil rights leader in U.S. history. That fact distinguishes Nashville from most Southern cities, including Chattanooga, Clarksville and Knoxville. (Former Pearl
High School is now called Martin Luther King Magnet High School.)
“I think where [Nashville] is behind is recognizing our significant role in the civil rights movement,” Maynard said. “Atlanta, Birmingham and other cities receive a lot of recognition for their role in the civil rights movement. Nashville had just as a prominent role in the movement. … For whatever reasons, our city has not taken the necessary steps to recognize that.”
Walker’s Freedom Rideon May 23, 1961, took him to Montgomery, Ala. That night, he and others spent several hours with King. King wanted to get on a Freedom Ride bus, Walker recalled, but the group decided it would be best he didn’t –– an account he notes runs counter to history taught in textbooks and in the recent PBS documentary about the rides.
Walker can easily rattle off just a few of the Southern cities he says have civil rights memorials or monuments. They include: Atlanta and Albany, Ga.; Richmond, Va.; Charleston, S.C.; Montgomery and Birmingham, Ala.; Oxford and Jackson, Miss.; Gainesville and Lakewood, Fla.; Little Rock, Ark.; and Greensboro, N.C. Walker acknowledges the downtown public library does have the “Nashville Room,” dedicated to civil rights, but nothing visible outside that stands alone.
“I feel a monument should be erected not only to honor those who took part, but also to give our youth of the day some better sense of history, a better understanding of what social responsibility can bring forth,” Walker said.
Near the end of last Tuesday’s meeting, the council unanimously approved a nonbinding memorializing resolution sponsored by members Erica Gilmore, Vivian Wilhoite and others that asks the Metro Nashville Arts Commission to install public art to honor the Freedom Riders and the sit-in movement.
“We don’t have anything of that stature in Nashville,” said Wilhoite, who added that a memorial should be placed somewhere prominent, perhaps at Public Square. “Nashville is behind, but the good news is that we don’t have to be behind.”
Jen Cole, director of the arts commission, said “The Citizen” — the pair of translucent, gender-neutral, movable statues installed last year at Public Square — is inspired partly by the civil rights movement. She agreed art specifically about Nashville’s Freedom Riders and sit-ins is “long overdue” and a “great idea.”
But the arts commission, she said, is bound by parameters written into the Percent for the Arts program, the law passed during Mayor Bill Purcell’s administration that 1 percent of all net proceeds of general obligation bonds issued for construction projects must be dedicated to public art. The law, Cole said, makes clear that dollars aren’t to be used for memorials to specific people or historical events. Accordingly, the program uses a “site-based” approach whereby the installation is decided based on location.
A set of bronze sculptures is set for installation this month at Public Square to complement “The Citizen.” Art is also slated for the new Goodlettsville Library, the McCabe Community Center and Music City Center, among other destinations. In December, the arts commission released a study of potential new locations throughout the county.
“There are a handful in the downtown core that could be locations,” Cole said. “If then the community said the civil rights movement should be the major inspiration for this location, we would certainly frame the call to artists that way.”
Cole said if a proposal for a civil rights-inspired piece comes before the art commission in September, the committee would consider it. But she said she doesn’t believe memorializing resolutions are necessary to go about requesting projects.
There’s one other way to fund public art outside the Percent of the Arts parameters. But that would require carving funds for an art project into Metro’s capital-spending plan, initiated by either Mayor Karl Dean or the council.
A new $33 million Museum of African-American Music Art & Culture has long been proposed for the intersection of Jefferson Street and Eighth Avenue. The group pushing for that museum brought on executive director Paula Roberts in 2009. She’s purportedly been raising money to finally make the project a reality. There’s been talk of placing a memorial to honor the civil rights movement at the museum, but construction has not begun.
A project official said a 2013 opening is still the goal.
Tim Walker, director of the Metro Historical Commission, said the primary historical marker devoted to the civil rights movement is a placard downtown on Charlotte Avenue.
“That was put up 15 years ago,” Walker said.
Walker, who has met with members of the Black Caucus and others, said the historical commission is happy to help assist in finding more locations for markers. He said he recognizes there’s a shortage of tributes to Nashville’s civil rights era.
“We’re trying to help out where we can,” Walker said.