Proposal to Give Honorary Degrees to Freedom Riders Expelled From Tennessee State University Voted Down by Board of Regents

A proposal offered by Congressman John Lewis and other civil rights leaders called for Tennessee State University to award honorary degrees to 13 students who were expelled from the university for participating in the 1961 Freedom Rides. The expulsions were ordered by then Tennessee Governor Buford Ellington.

But by a vote of 7 to 5, the Tennessee Board of Regents rejected the proposal. Board members said there was nothing racial about the rejection of the proposal. University rules simply prohibit the granting of more than two honorary degrees per campus per year.

In a letter to current Tennessee Governor Phil Breeden, Congressman Lewis asked that an exception be made in this instance. “It took nothing short of raw courage,” Lewis wrote, “to stand up to the governor, mounted police, tear gas, fire hoses, attack dogs, and yes, even their colleges and universities.”