Nashville Civil Rights chief Kwame Lillard dies at age 81

Kwame Leo Lillard, a veteran civil rights activist and freedom rider who later served on the Nashville City Council, died Sunday. He was 81 years old.

“It is with deep sadness and a heavy heart that we bring you the news that a valued man Kwame Lillard Freedom Rider and Civil Rights Activist has passed away tonight,” the African American Cultural Alliance said in a statement.

“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.”

Lillard was one of the few known 1960 Nashville sit-in strikers still alive in Middle Tennessee. He was part of the civil rights army, including John Lewis, Diane Nash and Rev. CT Vivian, who changed the face of activism in America.

In a statement on Sunday evening, Senator Brenda Gilmore, D-Nashville, described Lillard as a “street fighter for justice” who tirelessly fought for justice and equality in Nashville.

“It has been an honor and a privilege to work with him over the years to stand up for what is right for this community.” Gilmore said. “Our city is a better place because of his advocacy and guidance. With his death we must all continue to devote ourselves to the work of his life: to face injustice wherever it exists.”

The work of Lillard and other civil rights icons was a clear call for a younger generation pushing for a new movement of change.

“Nashville lost a legend tonight,” tweeted activist Justin Jones on Sunday night. “Kwame Leo Lillard, a veteran of the civil rights movement, a relentless campaigner for black liberation, and an elder who is always ready to shine light. He has always pressed on our community.”

In the summer of 1961, Nashville became a Mecca for Freedom Riders. In an interview with the Tennessean that summer following the deaths of Lewis and Vivian, Lillard described how he operated from a house on Jefferson Street and worked with Nash for the season.

Lillard, who also helped separate Nashville’s counters and cinemas, said the Freedom Rides are comparatively unique because they are a regional endeavor.

The civil rights activists who worked in Nashville in the 1950s and 1960s forged deep relationships as they stood shoulder to shoulder in the struggle for equality. Lillard called these ties deeper than family ties, as they repeatedly risked life and limb for the cause.

“We knew John Lewis said, ‘If not us, who? If not now when? “Lillard said this summer.” We knew something special was going to happen. It was a calling we just had to honor. ”

This is a developing story.

Includes reports from Holly Meyer and Adam Tambourine.

Yihyun Jeong reports on politics in Nashville for the USA TODAY NETWORK – TENNESSEE. Reach her at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter @yihyun_jeong.

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