Theotis Robinson: Political action ‘matters’

Lesli Bales-SherrodOur Town Leaders

Theotis Robinson Jr. first ran for public office in 1968, when he was 26 years old, the same year two college students were running against each other for state representative.

That may sound young these days, but back then, young people running for political office was “necessary,” Robinson said during a discussion earlier this month with Pellissippi State President L. Anthony Wise Jr.

Robinson, a trailblazer and advocate for equality for more than 60 years, visited the Hardin Valley Campus in conjunction with Black History Month for a “Conversation with a Legend” event.

Robinson said when he was just a high school student, he had already been a plaintiff to desegregate Knoxville City Schools. He continued his advocacy for race equality as one of the first three Black men admitted to the University of Tennessee by threatening to sue the school.

“The Civil Rights Movement was carried on by young people,” Robinson said. “The Greensboro sit-ins had started in February 1960 and spread quickly. Robert Booker came to speak to our high school about what the students at Knoxville College were thinking, and the sit-ins began here in June 1960.”

In those days, Knoxville had four hospitals, but only the non-religiously affiliated one located at UT would admit Black patients, Robinson said. The Knoxville Police Department had Black officers, all of whom had four-year degrees, but they never were promoted to supervisory positions within the force despite their white counterparts having less education. And UT was not admitting Black undergraduates.

In his quest to find race equality, Robinson launched into politics and served eight years on the city council and later as vice president for economic development for the 1982 World’s Fair, where he championed the participation of Black people in all aspects of the event.

“Politics impacts your lives directly,” Robinson told Pellissippi State students. “Are we going to remain a democracy or become an autocracy? Many freedoms are being eroded constantly. … People are writing laws against things they know nothing about.”

Robinson encouraged students to read, learn and become active participants in the political process because “it matters.” When he wanted to give up, he stopped focusing on the short term and remembered that other cultures think in 100-year or even 1,000-year cycles, he said.

“We have to continue to work on forming that ‘more perfect union’ because it’s not perfect,” Robinson said, referencing the preamble of the U.S. Constitution. “I’ll be working towards that until the day I die.”

Lesli Bales-Sherrod is a public relations specialist at Pellissippi State Community College


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