NPR Podcast Host Tells The Story Of Nashville Freedom Riders

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Versify is a Nashville Public Radio podcast, hosted by Joshua Moore, that focuses on the voices and firsthand stories from the community.

What was the inspiration behind this season’s Versify series? 

Our goal as a podcast has always been to project and elevate the voices of our community and to let our work be focused and informed by community input. 

Our project with The Freedom Riders, and consequently our whole fourth season of Versify, grew out of a dialogue with the community, and feedback from a former Versify storyteller Margaret Campbelle-Holman. Ms. Campbelle-Holman is the Founder and Creative Director of Choral Arts Link, a Nashville 2-12 youth chorus that focuses on providing children, particularly underserved children, with high-level artistic and educational opportunities. Margaret participated in our Versify staging at the Nashville Symphony in 2019, and she said that she was so moved by her experience that she wanted to find a way to collaborate. It was from her vision that our partnerships with Choral Arts Link and the symphony were developed. And the premise of our fourth season, a series of linked episodes examining the impact of the Freedom Riders 14, evolved from those conversations. 

We sat down to talk with Freedom Riders Dr. Etta Simpson Ray, Dr. Allen Cason, Dr. Rip Patton, and Dr. Freddy Leonard.

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Nashville Freedom Riders Then

Who or what was the greatest influence when creating this project?

Frankly, the Freedom Riders themselves. Getting to sit and listen to these men and women and learn about the texture of their lives, who they are as people beyond the framework of a history book and realizing that though the commitment they undertook – as children – largely derailed the course of their professional and educational ambitions, their sacrifice laid the groundwork for generations of Americans who came afterward, including me.

Why Nashville? Why now?

To quote Dr. Rip Patton, I think there was something “God-sent” about the Nashville Student Movement. When you look at the luminaries who intersected here – Allen Cason, Etta Simpson, John Lewis, Kwame Ture, Stokely Carmichael, Diane Nash, James Lawson, C.T. Vivian, and the list goes on – this city was and is an aggregator of potential. Look no further than the steps of the Capitol today where students are once again shouldering the activist mantel to hold their elected officials to account. And while as a country we are once more reckoning with the facts of history on a national scale, the tensions of public pain and protest are not new to this city. And I think here, as with many pivotal points in our country, the hard work that’s required to push toward that more perfect realization of the American ideal has never stopped being done.

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Nashville Freedom Riders Now

What do you want people to walk away with after they listen?

First: that this history is American history, we are indebted to the impact of the people who helped shape it, so we all have to be committed to ensuring their legacy continues. But beyond that, I want people to feel encouraged to question the sanitized depiction of history and to feel emboldened to take ethical risks for what they feel is right. The students who were involved in the Nashville movement were crossing both formal and implicit boundaries when they protested; they were breaking the law.  

But I think it’s important to remember that in large part the success of their movement was because of a willingness to bear the weight of those consequences. They held to a belief that history would find their actions just, and they worked persistently, strategically, through broad community partnership to ensure that their movement was much more than a symbol, that it could move the leadership of this city, of this country, to change the laws that governed them. 

 

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