Civil rights activist remembers power of song

Posted at 6:56 PM, Feb 28, 2019
and last updated 2019-02-28 20:47:19-05

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WTVF) — Standing behind a civil rights leader cramped in a jail cell, the one thing Ernest "RIP" Patton knew he could do was sing.

He was just arrested with 26 other activists in Jackson, Mississippi in late May of 1961. Patton, a college student at Tennessee State University, then known as Tennessee Agricultural and Industrial University, was not surprised to be jailed.

The surprise was more on the security guard who likely did not realize at the time, more Freedom Riders were on their way from Nashville.

Despite the treatment they received, Patton followed the lead of Nashville civil rights fixture Bernard Lafayette who began to sing, "Buses are coming, oh yes, buses are coming, oh yes, buses are coming, buses are coming, buses are coming, oh yes."

"The guard yells out 'Cut out all that nice, this isn't a concert hall!'" Patton recalled. "When the guard said that, Bernard simply turned around and said, 'What they gon' do? Put us in jail?'"

The songs they would sing while behind bars became a battle call during what Patton best described as a war. He was the third group to travel further south from Nashville as a Freedom Rider several days after deadly bomb attack on a bus carrying Freedom Riders in Anniston, Alabama.

Unlike its southern neighbors, Nashville had already integrated the bus system. Patton helped push for the Freedom Rides, joining alongside other civil rights activists including now Representative John Lewis.

"One of the things they say about the Nashville movement is that we announce our presence through song. We don't have to argue, we just started singing and you know we're here," Patton said.

Those who participated, blacks and whites, were already taught civil disobedience and motivated to not let violence overrule non-violence.

He eventually joined more than 300 Freedom Riders at the notorious Mississippi State Prison on Parchman, Mississippi. It was there where they proved their voices and faith could not be wavered, tweaking a gospel hymn to reflect their situation.

"I woke up this morning with my mind, stayed on freedom, I woke up this morning with my mind, stayed on freedom, I woke up this morning with my mind, stayed on freedom, hallelujah," Patton sang.

His mug shot joins hundreds of others Vanderbilt University alumnus, author and photojournalist Eric Etheridge included as part of his photo-history book "Breach of Peace".

There is now a portrait gallery which includes Patton's photo in the hallway of Vanderbilt's E. Bronson Ingram College.

"It's a great reminder, it brings back a lot of memories, it keeps my mind fresh," Patton added.

There is also a civil rights exhibition called "We Shall Overcome" at Robert Churchwell Museum Magnet School through the end of the year, before it goes to TSU in 2020.