Some locals say city is failing to honor its civil rights history

Sunday, May 22, 2011 at 10:05pm
Courtesy Birmingham Civil Rights Institute 

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.  

6 Comments on this post:

By: Trumpet on 5/23/11 at 1:19

Joe/The Collection: Excuse me! Did I hear you say, "The African- American Museum of Music Art & Culture"? MAAMAC? The one for/at Eight & Jefferson? I thought that's what I heard you say!?

IF that IS what I heard you say, then here/this is what you should do:

Put T.B. on TV... to update (us) the general public on the current status of the project. Have him publicly account for all funds raised and spent for this project (proposal) from day-one up until the present. He owes us (the General Public) that courtesy and acknowledgement. A detailed Status-report. His effort(s) should be as transparent as Don Lemon. T.B. should reveal the current status of the proposal and provide us with a realistic timeline for it's completion. He should be required to make this report, not his Executive Director, or Connie Kinnard, Francis Guess, Obama, or Bobby Jones, not Tom Joyner, Reavis Mitchell/Linda Wynn/Walter Searcy, Oprah, Paula/Alison-James Brown, or anyone other than T.B. himself. Do you get my point? This honor should be reserved for the illustrious Theo-the-Baptist, alone.

Besides, T.B. likes making TV appearances and he handles them well!
I can prove that statement by referring to "The Davis Collection". He made numerous appearances on "Symposia...episodes in Black-Affairs", a Public-Affairs Talk-Show 1970's-80's-Gail Choice/Bobby Jones. I created, produced, and directed that series. That's how I learned about TV & T.B. Seems like just how time flies when you're having fun!!! LOVE, PEACE & Sooouuullll.......Incidentally, I marched and rode for Freedom too, as a Pearl High School student!!!

KEEP THE FAITH.....Congratulations PHS' 61-Your (our) 50th.

By: richgoose on 5/23/11 at 5:10

After reading the headline I remembered quite well that this rumor has been going around for a number of years.

By: FreedomJournal on 5/23/11 at 7:18

A NOTE ON BLACK HISTORY (updated 23 may 2011, FreedomJournal Archives)

Greetings Brethren,
Peace be unto you. As history unfolds as it impacts on all that liveth I can see how and why I did write my name yesterday as I also need to write it today. God has not created anyone that is immune from the historical record as there is “A Confirmed Destiny" of all that liveth.
History can be defined as a systematic chronological account of important events connected with a country, people, individual etc. Usually the account of history is noted by an explanation of causes. The crucial and key concern is the explanation of causes. Those taught not to think and make analyses are lost. Those taught to be biased and prejudiced are also lost. Those that have a world view that promotes racial superiority are also lost.
Almighty God has declared that all races and or ethnic groups that inhabit the planet earth have a responsibility to have some knowledge and understanding about their history and culture. Those that have sought to destroy, deny and distort the history and culture of other people are ungodly. Sadly some come even among their brethren to distort and cloud the record thus excluding some that think from a God-centered Biblical or responsible Afro-Centric perspective.
The greed for material gain at the expense of oppressed people has resulted in a world full of foolish confusion. Meanwhile, the gifts of the Creator have been turned sour by unprincipled charlatans in an insane pursuit for money and materialism. Meanwhile, there is a natural order of the world. Almighty God ordained this natural order of life before the earth was formed. Man was thus created in Love. Those aspirations that contradict this fact of Creation are learned and acquired.

By: GUARDIAN on 5/23/11 at 7:42

GUARDIAN-Let's sing together now."Race cards keep falling from the sky...but I'm not about to wonder why...we all know what they are always for...but now they no longer work...except on a retarded few...SOOOO put them where the sun has never shined...I don't care to hear them out...LMAO"

By: Trumpet on 5/23/11 at 3:10

Joe/The Collection: Note to Freedom Journal as represented above:

If your comments are in reference to the content of the history revealed in "The Davis Collection" I referred to, I must admit. They have been called "graven images" by some. I think they meant that in the Biblical sense (context). I believe the images and the associated narratives speak for themselves and are open to interpretation by whomever may
view (consume-witness-watch and listen to) them. You are obviously an astute and well-spoken intellectual. Congratulations on your perspective!

One Heart

By: Nitzche on 5/23/11 at 5:08

nitzche says Don;t hate on us Brothers"?Keep Hope Alive