Nashville lost a legendary man in Kwame Lillard this week. The famed Freedom Rider and Civil Rights leader passed away Sunday at the age of 81.
Some of the new transplants to Nashville may not be aware of Lillard, but he has had a huge impact on the city. A civil rights pioneer, Lillard began fighting for the rights of black people in his 20’s. During the Nashville sit-ins of the 1960’s, he encountered beatings, cigarette burns, and was even spat on. He was also one of the Freedom Riders, a group of civil rights activists who rode interstate buses throughout the segregated South.
Lillard continued to be a political presence in Nashville, later serving as a member of the Metro Council. He was also heavily involved in creating the African Street Festival in North Nashville, an annual event that has been celebrating African culture from across the world since 1983.
For many in Nashville, the loss of Kwame hits hard. He was a driving force in the Nashville community who was always present in the struggle for the equality of Black Nashvillians. The African American Cultural Alliance Nashville posted this tribute to Lillard on Facebook:
“It is with profound sadness and heavy hearts that we share with you the news that Kwame Lillard Freedom Rider and Civil Rights Activist, a cherished man passed away this evening. Please continue to pray for his family and so many of us who’s hearts are truly broken. Remembering Baba, a wonderful and gentle soul who will forever remain in our hearts. ”
One distraught Nashvillian who asked to remain unnamed had this to say about him:
“I’ve been fortunate enough to have met some Civil Rights Leaders in my lifetime but one chose to connect with me and ensure I was using my time and energy for good, and that was the Honorable Kwame Leo Lillard.”
It is clear that many Black people in Nashville had similar experiences regarding Kwame while getting to know him.
There will be many people that never had a chance to know him but will feel his presence here with every African Street Festival and every right that he fought for the community to have. Because of his imprint on the city and the nation, his spirit will never be forgotten.