Tennessee State University's governing board voted not to grant honorary degrees to students expelled for participating in the civil rights era's now-revered but then controversial Freedom Rides.
The Tennessee Board of Regents denied a waiver that would have granted 13 of the 14 black students expelled from TSU in 1961 the degrees they were denied the chance to earn.
The 7-5 vote — one member abstained — placed Tennessee at odds with at least six Southern schools and school systems that have atoned for politically motivated expulsions.
Regents had concerns about denigrating the value of an honorary degree by awarding so many at one time and recognizing a "one-time act of courage" with what is intended to be a lifetime achievement award.
"There is something sacred about honorary degrees," said Richard Rhoda, executive director of the Tennessee Higher Education Commission and a nonvoting member of the regents board. "The board, in their judgment, did not feel like this was an instance where you should grant honorary degrees."
The Freedom Rides were orchestrated and often-integrated bus journeys designed to challenge segregation in areas of the sometimes violent deep South unwilling to accept a Supreme Court order calling for the integration of interstate travel facilities.
In 1961, downtown Nashville had already been the scene of mostly student-led sit-in protests. After a group of Freedom Riders from another state were attacked and beaten by a mob, students from several Nashville schools opted to continue the Rides, said Kwame Leo Lillard in a January interview. Lillard was a student at Tennessee Agricultural and Industrial State University — as TSU then was known — who helped to organize the Nashville riders.
The Nashville students were arrested in Mississippi and, while still in jail, were sent letters advising them that they would face expulsion under terms of a year-old rule created during the administration of Gov. Buford Ellington — a self-described segregationist who later renounced that viewpoint.
Since the 1990s, at least six Southern schools — including Vanderbilt and Fisk universities in Nashville — have denounced their decisions to expel students for participating.
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