Avon Rollins

Civil Rights in Knoxville

Retired Tennessee Valley Authority executive, current director of Beck Cultural Exchange Center, founding member of national Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC)

I was literally born right across the street from the Civic Coliseum at 505 Church Street. The doctor would come to the residence to deliver in those days. One of the interesting things is—I guess the year was maybe '63 or '64, whenever they saluted Knoxville as an All-American city—they arrested me right across from the Coliseum. Along with Marion Barry and 10 others.

I can remember my little brother, who was 11 years younger than me, so at that time he must have been 11 years old or so, and he went inside and put on his suit, and came and tried to get me out of jail. That really bothered him to see me being put in cuffs and thrown in a patrol car and driven away. They were saluting Knoxville as an All-American city, but we were insulted that Knoxville was not truly an All-American city, because it had not truly opened up to African Americans. African Americans could not go to church-related hospitals—they would have to be transported to the University of Tennessee hospital, to some rooms on the second or third floor, which they called the Negro wing.

One of the profound memories that I have is demonstrating at St. Mary's hospital. Probably in 1963. And a nun got a hold of my tie, in her clerical garb. And she just squatted and fell backwards with my tie. I was outside the door and she was inside the door. People who were outside and just looking at me thought that I was just kneeling and praying. Until they got closer and saw that I was changing colors. And I had a sign, "We Are All Brothers In Christ," but she was still choking me. This again, though, changing times—now, probably, St. Mary's is my hospital of choice. I've given one of the vice presidents of St. Mary's a photograph I think they should use in their archives of us demonstrating out in front of St. Mary's.

I went to Vine Junior High School, and that's where I really became keenly aware of the situation of America. There was a young man named Emmett Till who was killed in Mississippi in about 1955. And Emmett Till was the same age as I was, he would probably look something like me today if he had lived. And they... beat him so severely his head swelled up to the size of a watermelon and they chained him to an anchor and dropped him in the river. And his body was photographed and pictures were sent around the world. I looked at those pictures and they were very disturbing and my civics teacher at that time was a lady by the name of Helena Hudson, and she said, "Avon, why don't you put your feelings to paper?" and I wrote this paper titled, "America, Are You Really America, Are You Really the Land of the Free and the Home of the Brave?"

A graduate student at UT at the same time as me, who later became the mayor of Washington, D.C. , Marion was my mentor in the civil rights movement. And that's how I ended up "moving up the ladder" per se in the national movement. It was a very interesting time for undergraduates at UT. There was a place called Byerly's Cafeteria that was under that Masonic Temple [in Fort Sanders], all these places were closed. I had on my ROTC uniform one day, and I was with Father Matthew A. Jones, the Episcopal priest, a good friend of mine. This might have been '63, '62.

We were arrested for going through the line at Byerly's Cafeteria. Just going through the line. I think they might have taken out an injunction or whatever, and they arrested us for trespassing. It was funny, you know, they fined us. I chose not to pay a fine for being black. So they sent me to the Knox County penal farm. But again is that this is the first time when blacks and whites really came together to try to make a difference. Harry Wiersema [a local attorney] was a part of the demonstration, and Wade Till, he's still in Knoxville, and a guy named Phil Bacon who had some inheritance and used part of it to get us out of jail when they arrested us in and around the university. All these people were white.

I got arrested probably 30 times, all in the '60s. I guess the last time I was arrested, the last time I had to go to jail, I was employed at TVA. And there was an old case where the state Supreme Court did not overturn the lower conviction. We could probably have kept on appealing it. But this was in Danville, Va., and a lady from there put her property up for my bail. And they might not have taken her property. But to make sure they did not do that, I went back and I took the leave that I had at TVA and went to Danville to complete the serving of the sentence. And things had begun to change then. It's very interesting. Danville was an interesting place. The warden of the prison, I don't know, for some reason he would come get me at 2 o'clock in the morning to talk about Jesus. That was something. And all this brutality was going on, beating people. But when I went back to serve this last time, he came to court and spoke on my behalf. I think he felt guilty in terms of what had been done—the severity of the beatings that took place in Danville and some other communities.

Prior to working at TVA, I was working for an African American insurance company and going to various movements across the country. And I was still doing that, even working at TVA. Matter of fact, actual documentation, I possess a letter that Cas Walker wrote to them. He was complaining about, "This Avon Rollins, he's out there picketing my store."

A friend of mine told somebody here recently, "You really don't understand Avon. If Avon is going to stand up against a sub-machine gun mounted on an armored tank, with no weapons, you know he's not going to back down from you." And that's true.