If a single image enshrines the memory of the late Avon Rollins Sr., it’s a Knoxville News Sentinel photo from May 1963 of his six-foot-four body lying on the sidewalk in front of the Tennessee Theatre as part of the effort to integrate Knoxville’s movie theaters.
That summer, as an executive committee member of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), Rollins helped plan and carry out the March on Washington, which was capped by Martin Luther King’s historic “I Have a Dream” speech.
“Dr. King loved to arm wrestle with me,” Rollins said in an interview for the D.C. Everest Oral History Project. “Back then, I was in my 20s and Dr. King was in his 30s, and he could never beat me at a kitchen table. But we would go somewhere in public, and I would never let myself win because I refused to let people see him beaten in public.”
Rollins began his civil rights activities in 1960, when he was a student at Knoxville’s Austin High School. Taking part in lunch counter sit-ins in Nashville, Rollins met the head of the Nashville Student Movement, Marion Barry (who would later become the mayor of Washington, DC). Barry brought Rollins into the meetings that resulted in the formation of the SNCC—a body for coordinating youth organizations across the whole country.
In 1961, Rollins entered UT’s engineering program. Barry, who’d earned his master’s degree in chemistry at Fisk University, entered UT to work on his PhD. “We started a number of organizations at the University of Tennessee,” said Rollins in the oral history project interview. “One was called Students with Equal Treatment, that was affiliated with SNCC. I started the Black Committee of Knoxville and a committee for the development of the African American community.”
Rollins also started the Knoxville Civic Improvement Committee, also affiliated with SNCC, which organized efforts to integrate downtown restaurants, theaters, and hospitals. In 1962, Rollins was arrested trying to integrate Byerly’s Cafeteria in Knoxville’s Fort Sanders. The year after that brought Rollins to the protest in front of the Tennessee Theatre and subsequent sit-ins and arrests in Danville, Virginia, and Chapel Hill, North Carolina.
“I’ve been beaten, shot at, and put in jail 30 times,” Rollins said. “I tried to make America a better place to live, and hopefully America is a better place to live.” His civil rights work continued in Atlanta, Georgia; Greenwood and Greenville, Mississippi; and Birmingham and Selma, Alabama. In those places Rollins witnessed the attack dogs, fire hoses, baseball bats, and armored tanks that mark those turning points in history.
“His life was filled with the leaders of the civil rights movement,” said his wife, Sheryl Rollins. “He’s the kind of person who wanted you to be bigger than yourself when it comes to civil rights.”
In August 1966, Rollins took a job as an engineer at the Tennessee Valley Authority, where he worked for 29 years. In 1995 he became the director and CEO of Knoxville’s Beck Cultural Exchange Center, an African American teaching and learning center in Knoxville. In 2015, he was honored with the naming of the Avon W. Rollins Sr. Overpass on Cherry Street in East Knoxville below the I-40 bridge. Marion Barry went on to serve a total of 14 years as mayor of Washington, DC, between 1979 and 1999. He died in 2014 at the age of 78.
Rollins died on December 7, 2016, at 75, and was buried in the Mount Olive Cemetery. “Avon will go down in history as Tennessean who helped change our state and our country,” wrote Governor Bill Haslam in a letter that was read at Rollins’s funeral.
Photos courtesy of the Knoxville News Sentinel.