Living in Nashville has lots of advantages. We are finally starting to get the recognition we deserve as a top-notch destination for culture, food, fun, and history. These things that put us on the map draw more and more people to visit our city and also choose to stay. This is great, but as people decide to make Nashville part of their personal history, we need to reflect upon the role that Nashville has always played our national history.
When most people think of Nashville’s intersection with the world, they conjure colorful sights and sounds from the music, personalities, politicians, writers, and trends from the Music City. Today, we’re going to honor and reflect upon one of the more essential intersections of our nation’s history and the people of Nashville. I’m talking about the Freedom Riders and their role in the civil rights movement in the 1960’s and what inspiration we can draw from that.
There are lots of great books and documentaries about this moment in the civil rights movement. One of the better depictions I’ve seen is the relatively recent Freedom Riders documentary, which you can view here: https://youtu.be/66_kqSG6aHI Frankly, I believe it should be required viewing for anyone who wants to recognize the embodiment of courage.
I’ve been honored to meet and have conversations with the late John Siegenthaler and several of the Freedom Riders themselves. Their tales and first hand accounts are as hair-raising as they are illuminating. Beyond the shock of what they encountered, I remain struck by their calm resolve and steadfast belief in non-violent resistance in the face of certain imprisonment and harsh police brutality. They were merely doing what they knew was right and were expecting negative consequences. However, they underestimated the significant resistance and backlash they were soon going to encounter. I recall Siegenthaler telling me, "It’s not like I had ever had my head bashed in before - I honestly didn’t think I would experience that kind of violence - until I did." If that happens to the Assistant Attorney General trying to keep the peace - what is likely to happen to everyone else?
Many of these Freedom Riders originated in Nashville. They organized and trained here. They came from all walks of life. None thought themselves as heroes, nor were they acting for the sake of notoriety or widespread acclaim. They put their affairs in order and signed their wills before boarding those buses. They said goodbye to loved ones and put their lives on the line to do what they knew was right.
If that isn’t courage, I don’t know what is.
In reflecting upon the conversations that I’ve had with these Freedom Riders, I have the same gut reactions that I’m sure most of you would have. Awe. Inspiration. Respect. Gratitude. However, the lasting reflection from each discussion was each of them essentially saying: “I couldn’t imagine not doing it.”
May we all have the clarity to hear that kind of certainty in our lives and have the courage to act upon it.
What a wonderful world this would be.