Nashville Civil Rights Chief and Freedom Rider Kwame Lillard Dies at 81

Photo courtesy of the African American Cultural Alliance Nashville

Kwame Lillard, a Freedom Rider who bore the scars, teachings and memories of the civil rights struggle through a life of activism, died on Sunday evening. He was 81 years old.

One of the few organizers of Nashville’s 1960s sit-ins still alive, Lillard was also a member of the Metro Council from 1991 to 1995. After becoming a civil rights activist as a teenager, Lillard led the fight for dignity, equality, and freedom for black Americans and a wise man for younger generations who take to the streets for 60 years.

The African American Cultural Alliance announced his death on Sunday evening.

“It is with deep sadness and a heavy heart that we announce the news that Kwame Lillard, Freedom Rider and Civil Rights Activist, a valued man, has passed away tonight,” said a statement from the non-profit organization. “Please keep praying for his family and so many of us whose hearts are truly broken. Remember Baba, a wonderful and gentle soul who will stay in our hearts forever. “

In a reminder on Twitter, Tennessee State University professor and North Nashville historian Learotha Williams grieved for a compatriot and a reservoir of the movement’s history.

“Kwame was a friend, confidant, griot, and non-apologetic fortune-teller,” wrote Williams. “Tonight it feels like a library has burned down.”

Williams tells that scene that Lillard was a powerful force to have on your side.

“When Kwame was on your team, it always felt like you would prevail in whatever you were up against,” says Williams. “When I wanted to know the intimate details of North Nashville’s role in the civil rights movement, Kwame was like that [North Nashville History Project] Cheat code. ”

Metro Councilor Zulfat Suara remembered Lillard as a civil rights legend who was always available to others who wanted to follow his example.

“This is a huge loss for Nashville,” Suara wrote on Twitter. “He was always available for such an icon.” Share your time and wisdom. Rest in power, brother Kwame. “

Before mid-twenties, Lillard had stared at various manifestations of white supremacy. Writing for The Bitter Southerner a few years agoErin E. Tocknell spoke to Lillard about his defiant confrontation with Nashville’s separate public swimming pools. At the time, Lillard was working on Freedom Rides at college in Tennessee State.

Fifty years after the sit-ins at the lunch counter, he helped organize Lillard and other veterans of the movement staged a reenactment of the central protests in downtown Nashville.

Now a generation of activists whom he inspired and cared for are grieving for his loss.

“Nashville lost a legend tonight,” wrote leading activist Justin Jones Months of demonstrations at the State Capitol to secure the removal of Nathan Bedford Forrest’s bust inside.

Singer-songwriter Adia Victoria remembered Lillard welcoming her to Nashville’s black music legacy.

“When I first moved to Nashville, Kwame took me for a walk around Jefferson [Street] and explained to me the history of Black Excellence in Nashville, ”Victoria wrote on Twitter on Sunday evening. “He told me to” play the guitar girl! “and encouraged me to perform when I doubted I could. Rest in power. Nashville lost a giant today.”

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