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Bill Harbour remembers boarding a Birmingham, Ala.-bound bus in Nashville in May 1961, determined not to let violent segregationists disrupt a critical cause.

"We thought that if the Freedom Rides stopped now, we would lose a major chance to change the history of the United States," he said Friday.
Bill Harbour remembers boarding a Birmingham, Ala.-bound bus in Nashville in May 1961, determined not to let violent segregationists disrupt a critical cause.

"We thought that if the Freedom Rides stopped now, we would lose a major chance to change the history of the United States," he said Friday.

Harbour, 66, spoke hours after the Tennessee Board of Regents voted unanimously to award honorary degrees to him and 13 others who had been expelled from Tennessee State University for participating in the Freedom Rides. They and hundreds of others put their lives on the line by riding buses through the Jim Crow South to protest segregation in interstate transportation.

The Board of Regents reversed the decision it made four weeks ago, when it decided not to let TSU award the honorary degrees. That 7-5 vote drew widespread criticism.

Board members who changed their minds said they didn't know as much then as they do now, and they decided to make an exception to their policies, which don't allow that many honorary degrees at one school in a single year.

"When the idea first came up, the initial reaction I got from the academic community was not favorable," said Bob Thomas, a Nashville attorney who is the board's vice chairman. "After the first vote, it became clear that the academic community was at least divided on it. And when three of our universities' faculty senates said the students deserved the degrees, I had no problem with it."

Greg Duckett, a Memphis attorney, missed the March 28 meeting but said he had been on a board committee that rejected TSU's proposal. He said the earlier decision was "a procedural vote, not a substantive vote."

"It's unfortunate that some are portraying this as an issue of whether we thought the Freedom Riders were deserving of recognition," Duckett said after the regents' conference call Friday, which took about five minutes.

"The question became, within the policies of the Board of Regents, how can we put a round peg in a square hole?"

Regent Judy Gooch of Knoxville, the board's most vocal advocate for awarding the degrees, said after the vote that "the reasons that individual board members have changed their minds on this issue is really not important."

"What is important now as we go forward is that this vote today shows that this board is demonstrating a commitment to justice and fairness, and now the attention can turn away from our board and to the former TSU students, who can be now appropriately honored for their bravery and sacrifices," Gooch said. (The Tennessean, April 26, 2008)