Catherine Burks-Brooks ascended the stage, crossed the threshold and held her new degree to her chest as tears formed in the corners of her eyes. Hers was the first of 14 dreams that were fulfilled after 47 years.
Starting a special weekend dedicated to honoring a Tennessee State University legacy, this year's fall convocation awarded honorary doctorates of humane letters to the Freedom Riders 14, former students who had been expelled from the university during the 1961 Freedom Rides.
Kenneth Cummiongs/The Meter
Allen Cason, Mary Jane Smith, Etta Simpson, Rip Patton in file photo
"These students demonstrated extraordinary achievement, setting standards that merit distinction," said TSU President Melvin N. Johnson, sharing remarks with the more than 1,000 people in attendance at the Convocation. "They have inspired students, faculty, staff, administrators, alumni and members of the local, national and world communities with their courage, grace in the presence of tremendous odds, integrity and commitment to equality and the public good."
Provost Robert Hampton, chair of the Honor Freedom Riders committee, said planning for the event-filled weekend was a team effort brought to attention why the weekend was so prime for everything to take place.
The events included the convocation, an invitation-only reception, breakfast, campus tour, symposium, meet and greet with students, private luncheon, half-time tribute at Saturday's game against Eastern Kentucky University and the annual African Street Festival.
In the meet-and -reet on Friday, students and the public got an opportunity to shake hands, request autographs and listen to the wisdom of the Freedom Riders 14.
Then, during the halftime tribute, the Aristocrat of Bands performed a crowd-stirring rendition of We Shall Overcome, leading the entire audience in chorus while the Freedom Riders 14 locked arms on the field. Around the colossal stadium, fans stood to their feet clenching hands and raised their voices in song.
A short while before the convocation processional began, in a room away from the growing crowd, a strong but reticent Larry F. Hunter stood silently observing his comrades being donned with academic regalia while members of the press scrambled to grab sound bites and capture emotional moments on film.
"I know that I'm pretty quiet right now," Hunter said, smiling. "But I'm very elated inside. Inside, I'm so giddy."
Meanwhile, a smiling, tearful woman nearby snapped away with her disposable camera in hand, eyes bright and unable to hide the joy she felt inside. Gloria McKissack, an American history instructor at the university, was once a TSU student in 1961. These people were her colleagues, her friends.
"Everything for me is coming full circle," she said. "It was some of these very people who recruited me to join the (Civil Rights) movement. I'm just elated, I'm all-aglow."
Many who participated in the weekend's events were among the thousands who sent letters, e-mails and phone messages urging that the Tennessee Board of Regents reverse its 7-5 vote to deny a the university's proposal to award honorary degrees to the then-Tennessee A&I students in late March.
Less than a month later, in a specially-called April 25 telephonic meeting, the board voted unanimously to allow the university to "bestow upon all (14) Tennessee A&I Freedom Riders honorary doctorate degrees from (TSU) in honor of their unique acts of courage in 1961 that helped pave the way for the freedoms we all enjoy today," as stated in a motion by Regent Greg Duckett.
Regents policy encouraged that its member institutions exercise selectivity and award "no more than two (honorary degrees) per year." Because of the policy, some of the members who initially opposed the awarding of the degrees, like Regent Jonas Kisber, said they voted no.
"Voting the way that I did was in no way to demean the Freedom Riders," Kisber said. "I admire them and what they did. However, the rule is two degrees per school per year."
Hampton addressed why the university opted not to award the degrees during the winter, summer or spring commencement ceremonies.
"Commencement is really about the students, and it's their day to be recognized for their diligence," Hampton explained. "Why put them in a context to compete with each other?"
Hampton also said the committee took advantage of convocation to honor the Freedom Riders 14 so they could maximize the participation of current students. By the time winter and spring commencements take place, most students would have already gone home.
"After days and nights in jail, days and nights wondering about their educations, they deserve this. I'm just sorry it took 47 years for this day to come," Hampton said.
Among the many family members on hand to celebrate with the awarding of the degrees was TSU history professor Elizabeth McCain, the sister of William E. Harbour. While the ceremony was 47 years in the making, she recalled when things became tangible to her in Oct. 2004, when a student suggested in a forum that the Riders' legacy be honored.
"This is something we've been working on for a long time," said McCain. 'We first asked (TBR) about this back in 2004."
McClain added, "These students were 18, 19, 20 and 21-year-olds who made out their wills before they went on the Freedom Rides because they didn't think they were coming back. So today's TSU students, you have a civil rights job to do. You're job is not over. Find your own civil rights journey."
Marshall Latimore writes for The Meter, the Tennessee State University student newspaper, which originally published a version of this article.