The JCRC, in conjunction with the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation, hosted Dr. Ernest "Rip" Patton, Jr., a veteran of the 1961 Freedom Rides organized to end segregation in interstate travel – specifically passenger bus service. In conjunction with Facing History, Dr. Patton spoke to the Minnesota National Guard, St. Cloud State University, Fairview Alternative High School in Roseville and participated in a panel discussion following the October 11 Guthrie production of Appomattox.
The Battle of Antietam on September 22, 1862, was a significant if incomplete Union victory providing President Lincoln with the confidence and credibility to issue the preliminary Emancipation Proclamation freeing African American slaves in the Confederate states. At the end of the Civil War, the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments were ratified ending slavery, providing citizenship for African Americans and providing male African Americans with the right to vote. Approximately one hundred years later, particularly in the South, few African Americans were voting and segregation was ubiquitous in hotels, restaurants, barber shops, bathrooms and practically all public accommodations. (Indeed, the United States Supreme Court as early as 1960 [Boynton v. Virginia, 364 U.S. 454] had outlawed segregation in bus terminals and busses where the Interstate Commerce Commission had also through administratively rule made segregation illegal.) Thus, African Americans were fighting for dignity and the right to eat, sleep and live where they please – like all Americans.
Dr. Patton personified the struggle. As a 21 year old Tennessee State student, Patton was a drum major in the University marching band when, in 1961, he became involved in the Nashville Movement. Patton arrived in Montgomery, AL, on Tuesday, May 23, to help reinforce the riders meeting at the home of Dr. Harris after the May 21 firebombing and siege of Montgomery's First Baptist Church.
Patton took part in the May 24, 1961, Greyhound Freedom Ride to Jackson, MS, where he was arrested and later transferred to Mississippi's notorious Parchman State Prison Farm.
Patton was one of 14 Tennessee State University students expelled for participating in the Rides. Following the Freedom Rides, he worked as a jazz musician, and later as a long-distance truck driver and community leader. For the past three years, Patton has served as the Freedom Rider on an annual university sponsored Civil Rights tour of the Deep South.
At St. Cloud State, Dr. Patton met with students. Prof. Kyle Ward described Dr. Patton's impact as follows:
"It was an incredible opportunity to have Dr. Patton come to the St. Cloud State University campus to talk to our students. His experiences, insight and comments on the world today were very beneficial for our students as well as enlightening. I thought it was even more interesting to see how many students not only came to this event but also to see a number stay after and have more personal conversations with Dr. Patton about a variety of topics.
On a personal note, I was extremely pleased at how many Social Studies majors came to hear Dr. Patton talk. Knowing that students working towards this major will be able to pass on his stories and message to hundreds of their future students is fantastic. And that these future teachers will be able to start out their lessons on the Civil Rights era by saying, "when I listened to and met a Freedom Rider..." I think it will add special significance and help explain the importance of having Dr. Patton come to SCSU to talk."
Dr. Patton also spoke to a group of Minnesota National Guard personnel including Major General (Adjutant General) Richard Nash and Chaplain (Col.) John Morris, head chaplain of the Minnesota National Guard. Col. Morris spoke poignantly about growing up on an air force base in Biloxi, MS, where he father was stationed. The base was desegregated per President Harry Truman's Executive Order of July 26, 1948, desegregating the military while life outside the base in Biloxi and throughout Mississippi and, indeed, the South, was segregated leading to a duality in life.
Another facet of programming with Dr. Patton was a joint effort with the Guthrie Theater and the play Appomattox in which Dr. Patton participated in a post play discussion with a panel and the audience. Appomattox is a marvelous play addressing so many critical issues at a time when nearly fifty years after the passage of the Voting Rights Act the right to vote is again at the center of American politics. The Guthrie's commitment to Christopher Hampton's recounting of 1865 and 1965 dovetailed exquisitely with the JCRC's focus on the commemoration of the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation in coalition with the Minnesota African American Museum and many other groups. It is striking that at the centennial (1962) of the Emancipation Proclamation, African Americans in a large swath of our country were denied their right to vote and access to public accommodations, often through the use of intimidation and violence.
That arc of history made the post-play discussion with Dr. Patton, Christopher Hampton and Angela Pierce, Shawn Hamilton and Joe Nathan Thomas so compelling. It was remarkable to see and hear Rip Patton – the Freedom Rider – in conversation with Christopher Hampton – the playwright – and his interpretation of American history and the cast now seeing the interface of, in a sense, history and historian and their reaction to it. And all for the benefit of the audience who applied their own experiences to this moment. It was theatre within theatre representing a tremendous time of learning.