Ernest Patton, Jr. was among 300 Blacks arrested in May 1961 and placed in a state prison farm for participating in a Freedom Ride from Nashville to Jackson, M.S.
The first of four student sit-ins took place on a snowy day on February 13, 1960, says Patton. “Eighty-seven students were arrested on the fourth sit-in,” he added. “But before the arrests were made, the general Black community [in Nashville] was saying, ‘Why are you going downtown? Why are you upsetting the apple cart? We’re accustomed to this.’ But the children were saying, ‘No, no, we need a change.’ But when the 87 students were arrested, that’s when the Black community joined in.”
Patton also participated in a Freedom Ride from Nashville to Jackson, Mississippi on May 24, 1961, where he was among over 300 Blacks arrested and placed in a state prison farm. Patton later was one of 14 Tennessee State students expelled for participating in those rides.
He never finished his degree work at Tennessee State, where he once was a drum major in the school’s marching band: “I had a chance to go back, but I was off into something else by that time,” said Patton, who became a jazz musician opening for the likes of Lou Rawls, Les McCann and the Crusaders, then later becoming a long-distance truck driver.
Since Freedom Riders’ release, Patton has been involved in speaking about his participation. “It took Nashville four years to desegregate the whole city,” he notes. Along with sit-ins, there were boycotts as well. “We started in 1960 and it wasn’t until 1964” that the city was desegregated. “The other things that they didn’t want to desegregate, they closed, such as the city pools.”
“Dr. King got the credit, but [there also were] foot soldiers behind the scenes out there doing the work,” he noted as he downplayed his own role in the movement. “I’m not doing this for a place in history. There’s a possible chance I won’t be in the history books.” Nashville hasn’t received its full credit for its role in social change, he opined.
“Seven out of 10 of Dr. King’s lieutenants were from Nashville,” noted Patton. “A lot of things that happened in the Civil Rights Movement may have happened because of the Nashville students. The Selma to Montgomery [March] was because of the Nashville students. You come to Nashville and walk the streets [and] where you think you would see a monument or something about the Civil Rights Movement, you don’t see anything.”
Patton and seven other Freedom Riders meet on the second Tuesday of each month in Nashville. “We have a campaign going on to get some monuments to give Nashville the recognition” including having “one of the longest walls in the [city’s convention center now under construction] so that we have something historical on that wall that would represent the Civil Rights Movement in Nashville.”
His group also is seeking more recognition for the legendary Fisk (University) Jubilee Singers. “When Fisk was first being built and needed some money, the Fisk Jubilee Singers went to England and appeared before Queen Victoria.
“She said, ‘You must be from Music City.’ So we want people to recognize the fact that that quote has nothing to do with guitars and country music.”
While watching the 2008 presidential election returns, Patton finally realized exactly what he did in Nashville over five decades ago was more than just being able to eat at a lunch counter. “I was sitting in the living room with some friends… I am just sitting back and taking this all in. Then I get a phone call from a female Freedom Rider.
“She said to me, ‘I finally realize why I went on the Freedom Ride. It was worth it. Even the president said that if it wasn’t for the Freedom Rides, [he] would not be where he is today.’”
Source: Twin City Daily Planet