The Look in Brief

Freedom Rider Ernest “Rip” Patton dies at 81

By: - August 24, 2021 5:05 pm
Ernest "Rip" Patton photographed in the Nashville Public Library, January 2021. (Photo: John Partipilo)

Ernest “Rip” Patton photographed in the Nashville Public Library, January 2021. (Photo: John Partipilo)

Ernest “Rip” Patton, Jr., a member of the Freedom Riders, has died at the age of 81. 

Patton’s death was posted on the Facebook page of The Freedom Riders Museum on Tuesday. The Montgomery, Alabama museum dedicated to the Civil Rights Movement did not give a cause of death. 

In February, Senior Reporter Anita Wadhwani wrote about Patton’s experience in the movement, and we are re-sharing the story along with portraits of Patton from photojournalist John Partipilo.

Ernest "Rip" Patton inside the Nashville Public Library's Civil Rights Room. (Photo: John Partipilo)
Ernest “Rip” Patton inside the Nashville Public Library’s Civil Rights Room. (Photo: John Partipilo)

Drum Major for Justice

Ernest “Rip” Patton Jr. was a drum major in the marching band at Tennessee State when he joined the newly formed branch of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) in 1960.

In February of that year, he took part in sit-ins at the downtown Nashville lunch counters with fellow students in a nonviolent protest of segregation, an effort that succeeded in integrating downtown businesses later that year. In May 1961, Patton boarded a Greyhound bus in Nashville headed for Jackson, Mississippi to challenge segregated interstate travel.

Patton and his fellow Freedom Riders were arrested at the bus station in Jackson and sent to Parchman Farm, the Mississippi state penitentiary notorious for its brutal conditions.  

He was expelled from Tennessee State for his activism. He never returned. But nearly 50 years later in 2008, the university awarded him an honorary doctorate degree.

Patton worked as a jazz musician and a truck driver, and has talked at length about his experiences since. 

In 2011, he appeared in a televised interview with Oprah Winfrey describing what the students faced  inside Parchman prison.

“We did a lot of singing,” he said. “They didn’t like the singing. And every time that they would threaten to do something, we would sing.” 

Patton, his voice a deep baritone, began to sing: “You can take our mattress, oh yes,” in a melody that echoed spiritual music, repeating the verse several times. The audience, and Oprah, joined him.


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Anita Wadhwani
Anita Wadhwani

Anita Wadhwani is a senior reporter for the Tennessee Lookout. The Tennessee AP Broadcasters and Media (TAPME) named her Journalist of the Year in 2019 as well as giving her the Malcolm Law Award for Investigative Journalism. Wadhwani is formerly an investigative reporter with The Tennessean who focused on the impact of public policies on the people and places across Tennessee. She is a graduate of Columbia University in New York and the University of California at Berkeley School of Journalism. Wadhwani lives in Nashville with her partner and two children.