Interview - Nashville - Jenkins-Armstrong

Interview - Nashville - Jenkins-Armstrong



As a college student at Tennessee State University (then A&I College), Patricia Jenkins-Armstrong trained in nonviolent protest with legendary civil rights leader, Dr. James Lawson. In 1961, she was an original Freedom Rider in Birmingham. She shared some of her profound life story with Wildsam in June 2018.


I GREW UP in North Nashville, very insulated from what could happen to you if you were black and you went to the wrong area.

I THINK I was about my 13 when my first incident of racism happened.

I GRADUATED HIGH SCHOOL at 17 and started at what was then A&I. It’s Tennessee State now.

IT WAS $55 a quarter to go. That was a lot of money.

TWO FRIENDS in my biology lab asked me, “Pat, why don’t you come downtown and march with us?”

I TOLD THEM, “My daddy would kill me if he found out.”

I WENT TO the church where they were teaching lessons on non-violence. I went through the training, and for some reason it just started getting to me.

WE WERE IN front of a well-known department store called Harvey’s. All the stores had luncheonettes, but you couldn’t go in and eat. You could order food and sit out in the alley and eat.

WE STARTED demonstrating there every Saturday.

FRED HARVEY CAME out one day and said, “Y’all can stay here ‘til the cows come home, but I am not gonna let no niggers eat at my restaurant.”

FRED’S WIFE WAS helping us. She would give us $20 for bail every time we went to jail.

SOMEBODY HIT ME over the head with a Coca-Cola bottle. It knocked me out.

BY THIS TIME, my mother and father knew.

I believe that if it had not been ordained by God, we would all be dead.

WE WERE GOING to Birmingham. It was my first ride.

AT THE TRAILWAYS bus station, they locked up the bathrooms and water fountains and they had German Shepherd dogs running around.

BECAUSE NASHVILLE wasn’t that bad, because we demonstrated and nobody tried to kill us, I guess we thought that nothing really bad could happen in Birmingham.

WE GOT 25 miles outside of the city and all the highway patrol escort disappeared. It was an eerie feeling.

THE OLDEST PERSON on the bus was 20.

HE WAS SAYING, “This is all fun and games and we all singing songs, but we need to talk about wills.”

THEY HAD BASEBALL bats and garden hoes. I saw one lady with a baby in her arms. They were all screaming, hundreds of them: “Kill those niggers. Kill those niggers.”

I WAS 18 years old. And I thought I was going to die.

EVERYBODY HAD A PARTNER. You stay with your partner no matter what.

WE GATHERED IN a church. Outside we heard rumbling noises and smelled sulfer. You could smell fire.

DR. KING said to just be calm.

PRESIDENT KENNEDY called the Governor and told them that he would send the National Guard if they did not get us out of there.

PROBLEM WAS the National Guard in Alabama was the Ku Klux Klan.

THEY GOT US out at 3am.

THE NEXT DAY we were at Dr. Ralph Abernathy’s house when someone threw a bomb at the front door.

I BELIEVE that if it had not been ordained by God, we would all be dead. It was our time to do what we did. How many people you think could slap you and you not retaliate?

WE DIDN’T TALK about it. We didn’t see each other. We just bottled it up inside of us.

FOR TEN YEARS, my husband didn’t even know I had been a Freedom Rider.

I NEVER GOT in any trouble at school. Never was in a fight. Never riled or nothing. And then all the sudden I was in the midst of the worst kinds of things that could happen.

YOU DON’T KNOW what you can do until you are faced with it.

WHAT KIND OF person are you? Are you just taking up space on this earth or have you done something?