Standing on his shoulders
The photo to above is Rip Patton on the steps of Jubilee Hall at Fisk, on June 7.
You could feel the spirit at Fisk. We stood on the lawn in front of a statue of W.E.B. Du Bois as Dr. Arsenault explained that Fisk was opened in Nashville in 1866 to offer education to newly freed slaves. All of but two of the original Jubilee Singers were former slaves. When the school needed to raise money, they created a choir that toured, hoping to raise money, and they did so well that funds were eventually used to build Jubilee Hall.
Our day was especially moving when Rip and classmate Cynthia Mott performed two freedom songs at the Fisk Chapel, “Buses are Coming,” and “Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me Around.” Time had the opposite effect it did during the sit-in exercise, it went by too quickly and I didn’t want the songs to end. I had gone upstairs to shoot crowd shots of the class in the chapel, and was in the perfect place to record their songs. Cynthia and I got to know each other on this trip, this was a true moment for her.
I thought about the role of music in their lives, in my life. Later, Rip Patton explained to me that the ‘turn me around’ song was one that they really depended on to keep them going. I feel like that song, that day was a gift, and I sing it now to myself all the time.
Next, we went to listen to John Seigenthaler talk at the First Amendment Center at Vanderbilt. At 83, Seigenthaler remembered the incidents of the Freedom Rides as though they happened last week. He told us the story of the call he got from RFK when the Attorney General asked, “Who in the hell is Diane Nash?” He recounted what it was like to get hit in the head with a pipe at the Montgomery bus station, and how he laid under a car for something like 20 minutes, bleeding, until he was rescued.
The best thing about Seigenthaler though may have been his candor as he relayed the metamorphosis the Kennedys went through. So early in their administration, they were faced with racial issues at a time when they were focused on the Soviets, Cuba, and foreign affairs. He talked about how RFK really truly changed when he came into contact with the events in the south. And how he, as a Federal Agent who was powerless against the hatred for blacks in Montgomery, changed as well.
Later, we made it to Birmingham and were welcomed by the law firm Haskell-Slaughter so we could listen to attorney Doug Jones. Jones was a US Attorney who served as a special prosecutor in the State of Alabama vs. Thomas Edwin Blanton Jr, and State of Alabama vs. Bobby Frank Cherry, where defendants were convicted of murdering four young black girls in the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham. Jones made the trial about the church as a victim, and the four girls as a victim and told us about the witnesses who eventually came forward to testify against Blanton and Cherry.
I chose this photo to represent Fisk, Vanderbilt, and our first night in Birmingham. I heard the quote, “Standing on the shoulders of those who helped bring about change,” at some point on this trip, and although it stuck with me, I’m not sure who to attribute it too. But I can tell you all of us stood on Rip’s shoulders all week. The day I took this, we stood on John Seigenthaler’s shoulders and Doug Jones’ shoulders as well.