As several friends have remembered since his death in 2016, Avon Rollins was a key figure in local civil-rights history.
The Knoxville native was one of the University of Tennessee’s first generation of black students. In 1962, the engineering major was associated with the Knoxville Civic Improvement Committee when he was arrested for trying to integrate Byerly’s Cafeteria in Fort Sanders. The following year, he was arrested for picketing downtown movie theaters, famously lying down in front of the entrance to the Tennessee Theatre. Pretty tall, he formed a significant obstacle.
He would be famous locally if he’d quit after all that, but he didn’t. Most of his eulogies emphasized his significant activism in Knoxville.
He became a leader of the national Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, and in the mid-’60s was causing stirs in Danville, Va.; Chapel Hill, N.C.; Selma, Ala.; and in several places in Mississippi. He witnessed attack dogs, fire hoses, baseball bats, armored tanks.
The same year he lay down in front of the Tennessee, he was part of the leadership of the hugely successful March on Washington, which culminated in Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech.
He was a friend of King’s, and the two were fond of arm-wrestling. (Avon sometimes said he’d let the older man win when people were watching.) He worked with several of the legends of the era, including playwright Lorrane Hansberry, who he said got him involved in SNCC.
Some colleagues found it remarkable that even in dealing with extreme situations involving people who wanted to hurt him, Avon liked to wear a jacket and tie. And he would wear that every day, back home in his career as an engineer at TVA.
Later executive director of the Beck Cultural Exchange Center, he mellowed just a little, but still kept a bit of an edge to him, never content to rest on any laurels, or recite the obvious triumphs of the last 60 years. Racial inequality has survived the era of fire hoses and attack dogs. He wanted us all to remember that.
Otis Stephens, who passed away a couple of weeks before Avon, was one of the University of Tennessee’s leading scholars, remarkable in that he excelled in two different schools. In the Department of Political Science department, he taught for years, and eventually became department head, and also associate dean of the College of Liberal Arts. He earned multiple awards, once serving as UT’s commencement speaker.
Later, after he’d earned all the awards he could in political science, when he’d become known as a constitutional scholar, he decided he’d rather teach in the College of Law. He was a professor there in his later years. He earned the title of Macebearer, UT faculty’s highest honor.
He authored or co-authored or edited about six scholarly books. All that would be enough to make you scratch your head at this one guy’s resourcefulness, even if you overlooked one detail. Otis was blind from birth.
That’s a disability, but to him that was also a responsibility, and he acted nationally. He was an advocate for Braille literacy, and in the 1980s he became president of the American Council for the Blind. In 2002 he became a plaintiff in a significant national lawsuit demanding that U.S. currency be more tangibly distinctive so that the sightless can discern a $100 bill from a single. They won some rulings, but the main issue remains to be resolved.
Born near Atlanta, he was first known as a talented pianist, a role that helped earn his way through the University of Georgia in the 1950s. He had a Johns Hopkins Ph.D. when he accepted a post at UT in 1967.
Being a celebrated poli-sci prof might seem a good enough job for anybody, but he never settled in. At age 47, Otis got his law degree at Harvard.