Dr. Rip Patton has a simple explanation for why music played such a key role for the Freedom Riders and other landmark people and events in the civil rights struggle for black Americans.
“Music was important because, you know, there’s a saying that we all can’t talk at the same time but we can sing at the same time,” he said in his deep, resonant voice during a phone interview.
During the call Patton offered a wealth of information about the movement in which he has played a significant part. That included the Freedom Rides, the 1961 effort in which teams of blacks and whites took buses through the South to expose segregation and were met with violence.
Patton will share those experiences Monday, April 22, in Pablo Center at the Confluence’s Jamf Theatre.
Patton’s presentation, called “It Was the Right Time,” will focus on the confluence of music and activism. As he explained, music served as a vital communication tool in the movement.
“It was important,” he said. “That’s all we had because we didn’t have cellphones and computers and different things kids have today that can distract them from what they’re doing. So what we had was music that came from the church; we might change a word or two in the song to fit whatever the situation was at that time.”
B.J. Hollars, UW-Eau Claire English faculty member, was inspired to bring Patton to Eau Claire after meeting him in 2016 while researching one of his books: “The Road South: Personal Stories of the Freedom Riders” (2018).
Hollars met Patton for the first time at the Freedom Rides Museum in Montgomery, Ala. The museum is at the site where the Freedom Riders were savagely beaten after getting off a bus.
As Hollars explains in the book, while on his trip he learned, on short notice, many of the Riders would be at the museum for a meet-and-greet as part of the 55th anniversary of the Rides. He hustled to the gathering, and it turned out Patton was among the attendees.
“And so I spent a lot of that afternoon talking with as many Freedom Riders as I could,” Hollars said in a phone interview. “As the day wound down and people began to leave the museum, I just kind of firmly affixed myself there until they were going to kick me out.”
At that point, after the crowd had thinned out, the Riders began to sing some of the songs that were part of the movement. When that happened, Hollars recalled, “Dr. Patton joined in and began to lead some of the songs and kind of welcomed me into the circle.
“And I’ve said it before but I’ll say it again,” he continued: “I’ve never felt that kind of electricity run through me when you’re on that location on that anniversary singing the freedom songs alongside the Freedom Riders.”
When Patton enrolled at Tennessee A & I (a school now called Tennessee State University), he intended to become a music teacher. When he’s asked if it’s fair to say he put his musical talents to a higher purpose through the civil rights movement, he agreed.
“It’s more than fair; you are absolutely right,” he said.
His hope was that he would graduate, work for a couple of years as a high school or junior high school music teacher or a band director and eventually earn his master’s degree and join the music education staff at Tennessee A & I. However, he was expelled for his participation in the civil rights movement.
But in his chosen calling, he said, he has been able to influence far more people than if he had not extended his message beyond the classroom.
“You only get so many students in music per year,” he said. “And so those are the ones I would be talking to about civil rights and what have you. But as it turns out I’m talking to students almost every day now.”
He also has been able to bring his message nationwide as well as to international cities such as London.
Patton has shared his musical talents with the public in another way as well. He sings in four choirs, he said, and he appears on bluesman Keb Mo’s “Bluesamericana” album from 2014. For the song “Somebody Hurt You,” the artist incorporates a quartet that includes Patton singing the bass part.
Hollars, who is director of the Chippewa Valley Writers Guild, which is helping sponsor Patton’s visit, said Patton’s perspective deepens people’s awareness of the Freedom Riders.
“People may have some general understanding of the Freedom Riders, but I don’t think the general population really knows the personal story,” he said. “And I think Dr. Patton really provides a powerful personal story and really puts a face on that movement in many ways.”
When he speaks to young people about such historic events as the Freedom Rides and the peaceful sit-in demonstrations at lunch counters in the South, Patton said, he works to get his audience actively involved rather than just listening passively.
“I don’t just have them sit there. I let them take part in it, show them what a demonstration looked like,” he said. “Have them sit at what I call a lunch counter, and we talk about the fact they couldn’t be served or we talk about the fact that we (the protest organizers) did not allow a black male to sit next to a white female at a lunch counter during the demonstration because that was a no-no, because that would make things really bad then.”
Patton used an example of how he engages the young people during his presentations. At one school visit he had the students role playing the scene when members of the Congress of Racial Equality came to Atlanta in an effort to get Martin Luther King Jr. to take part of the Freedom Rides.
He told the group about more than 100 children that he needed a volunteer to be King and looked around the room at all the raised hands.
“And there’s one little white student with horn-rimmed glasses on, and I point to him, and I say, ‘I want you to be Dr King.’ And the teachers looked at me like I was crazy.”
But then he reminded the group of King’s “I Have a Dream” speech. “‘In his speech he talked about black and white coming together, about children coming together.’” he told them. “I said, ‘You don’t have to be black to be Dr. King.’ They got it. They got it.”
Purpose in prison
During his participation in the civil rights movement, Patton was among the protesters who were sent to the notorious Parchman state penitentiary in Mississippi. Even then, he said, singing helped them endure the incarceration and spread their message.
“Every morning, every day, all day we’re singing,” he said.
In fact, that was one of the ways they communicated with those in other cellblocks. A group in one block would put their cheek to the wall and start singing, and then those on the other side would know they were all right and disseminate that news to others.
Some, but not all, in the prison enjoyed the music, Patton said.
“In the prisons the people who were in prison — they loved it,” he said. “They loved to hear the singing. The trustees loved the singing. The guards didn’t like it because ... you’re supposed to be crying and moaning because you’re in prison. You’re in the worst prison in the United States and you are singing every day.”
And, it appears, music continues to further Patton’s message today.
Patton’s program is presented by the Chippewa Valley Writers Guild and Pablo Center with support from with support from the UW-Eau Claire Visiting Minority Scholars and Artists Program, the UW-Eau Claire College of Arts and Sciences, Blugold Beginnings and the university’s English department.