Thursday, August 26th, 2021 by
Randall Williams (left), editor-in-chief of NewSouth Books, with “Rip” Patton (middle)

This week we mourn the loss of a true American hero. Freedom Rider Dr. Ernest “Rip” Patton has passed away at the age of eighty-one after a brief illness. Dr. Patton was a twenty-one-year-old student drum major in the band at Tennessee A&I (now Tennessee University) when he joined the Freedom Rides in May 1961. He was in the third wave of student Freedom Riders to come to Alabama to complete the journey by bus after the first group of Freedom Riders, sponsored by the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), were violently attacked in the state on Sunday, May 14, causing them to have to complete the Rides to New Orleans by plane. Dr. Patton did not tell his mother that he planned to go on the Rides when he left heading to Montgomery. He arrived here one day before the group set out to head to Jackson, Mississippi. Dr. Patton would be among the first groups of Freedom Riders to arrive in Jackson, eventually landing him in Mississippi’s infamous Parchman Prison for nearly forty days under a Breach of Peace charge. His mother received a call from a family friend who saw Dr. Patton and other Freedom Riders as the arrival in Jackson was covered by news media. 

While in Parchman, Dr. Patton was a member of a quartet who led freedom songs with other Freedom Riders, their singing often causing them to be targeted for extra punishment from the prison guards. However, whenever Dr. Patton spoke, he would recall how the singing was a source of strength and comfort to the Freedom Riders while they were in prison. As a music major, he believed in the power of music. While he was in prison in Mississippi, Dr. Patton was one of fourteen students who were expelled from Tennessee A&I. After the Freedom Rides, Dr. Patton spent some time fundraising for the civil rights movement before settling on a career as a truck driver. 

When the Freedom Rides Museum opened in 2011 on the fiftieth anniversary of the Freedom Rides, Dr. Patton was one of the Riders who came back to Montgomery to participate. Over the next ten years, Dr. Patton would come to Montgomery frequently to speak to visitors at the museum. Over the last few years, he spoke more virtually to visitors, but he always ended each presentation with a song. We are honored that Dr. Patton spent so much of his life giving to others, whether it be as an activist or a speaker. He was a gifted storyteller and when he sang, visitors young and young at heart were moved, sometimes to tears. 

2021 is the sixtieth anniversary of the Freedom Rides and we hope that folks will take the time this year to reflect on the courage of the Freedom Riders and remember the ones we have lost like Dr. Patton. We are thankful that Dr. Patton and other Freedom Riders took the time to share some of their stories with the rest of us. We will continue to not only reflect on their extraordinary courage and sacrifice but seek to continue their legacy and their journey in the fight for justice and freedom for all.