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Freedom Rider Etta Marie Simpson says: 'I was just a link in the chain'

Etta and Jamila at the 37th Annual Tennessee State Youth Conference
Etta and Jamila at the 37th Annual Tennessee State Youth Conference
Willie Carlisle /

Sunday was the culmination of a weekend that brought African-American youth from all four corners of the state of Tennessee to Nashville for the 37th Annual Youth Conference. One of the most colorful individuals at the conference was a 73-year-old lady who was introduced to the attendees as being a former Freedom Rider. My journalistic antenna went up and I persisted to sit down with Etta Marie Simpson and attempted to uncover the essence of her commitment and dedication to be among some of the most courageous citizens in American History.

Etta’s involvement as a Freedom Rider began in the city of Nashville when she was 18 years-of age. According to her, the motivation behind getting involved in the movement was to have the same rights and privileges as any other citizen residing in the Nashville area. Of course her involvement took her far from her home in Nashville to her first being arrested in Mississippi for simply riding a Greyhound bus. She would later be arrested in Alabama, Tennessee and several other states for the same offense.

Etta pointed out the fact that even though Rosa Parks got the most publicity for her refusal to give up her seat on a Montgomery city bus, the first Freedom Rider was actually a young lady from Baltimore, Maryland named Irene Morgan. Irene would later become known as Irene Morgan Kirkaldy. Irene was arrested in Virginia in 1944 for refusing to give up her seat on an interstate trip which was against the law for Blacks to do under the segregated Jim Crow laws of that day.

Etta pointed out that Nashville was the training ground for anyone who wanted to join the movement and that a commitment to non-violence had to be adhered to. The Nashville coalition attracted other groups such as the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) who had among its ranks Rep. John Lewis (D-GA) who would eventually join forces with Martin Luther King and the Civil Rights Movement became a force to be reckoned with.
When I inquired about the training provided in Nashville, Etta said:

“We were trained to endure being spat upon without retaliating. We were douched with hot coffee and hit by the instructors in an effort to toughen our resolve and to prepare us for some of what we would suffer at the hands of those who opposed integration and would do anything to stop it. We adopted nonviolence as our core commitment and anyone who could not conform was sent home and not allowed to be a part of their group. A realization that your life would be endangered was a part of the training. After completion of the training the group of participants decided to take their movement to other southern states and the Freedom Riders were activated. Inequities in access to facilities, schools and buses were my main motivation for getting involved. I did not watch the news for more than 5 minutes because I couldn't stand to see the brutal treatment of my people and the laws which allowed such treatment. I encourage young people today to get involved and to pay attention to the news. Helping them to help themselves is my reason for being at this function today.”

Etta’s first encounter with the injustice that she would devote her life to changing was being denied service at a hamburger franchise based out of Chattanooga known by the name Krystal. It was humiliating for her to be served out of the back door or at the drive-through window even though she was not riding in a vehicle.

When I delved into her thoughts as to the progress that has been made as a result of the Freedom Rider’s efforts, she was pleased in one aspect and saddened in another. She pointed out that the surviving members out of the original 400 were honored by the National Women’s Law Center in 2011 and President Obama was the guest speaker. A video of his speech is embedded here. He greeted each one of them personally and she remembered him placing a kiss on her cheek.

The part that she regrets is the co-opting of their movement by everyone who claims to have a civil rights grievance of feel that they are being discriminated against by someone or some organization. She feels that comparing yourself to the Civil Rights Movement is not justified if you didn't have to endure the shame and humiliation endured by those who laid their lives on the line.

Etta on several occasions said, “I was just a link in the chain.” I didn't have to inquire as to what she meant because evidence of a chain in her life was right before my eyes. Her son Robert Ray sat patiently through the interview and was very helpful in facilitating its completion. Robert is very active in the Nashville area with the “Boys to Men” program where he works with inner-city boys in need of a positive role model. This program is hosted by the Scott Avenue Church of Christ in Nashville.

Another link in the chain is Etta’s granddaughter (Robert’s daughter) Jamila Anneria Ray. Jamila who is pictured with Etta is the reigning Miss Tennessee State Youth Conference for 2013. She is present at the conference not only for the fellowship but to pass the crown of Miss TSYC to the young lady who will succeed her as the representative for the state in this prestigious position.

When asked if she had any words of encouragement she’d like to share with those who would read this compelling story, Etta simply said: “we've come a long way but we have a great distance to go."


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