Two Rebels: Remembering Avon Rollins and Otis Stephens

In The Scruffy Citizen by Jack Neelyleave a COMMENT

As several friends have remembered since his death last week, 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 the eulogies last week emphasized his significant activism in Knoxville. It was probably a decade after I first met him that I was startled to run across his name in some civil-rights histories.

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 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 died early this month. He was one of the university’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.

He was, for years, a neighbor of mine. We were on a city bus route, which made our neighborhood handy for Otis and a couple of other blind professionals. On the way home in the afternoon, he boarded at Cumberland and 16th Street. He and I used to ride home together, and always talked. He was curious about everything, and wanted to learn more.

Another blind neighbor was Brady Wilson, who was a masseur at the downtown YMCA. Brady could get along well without help, and rarely asked favors. But he hated icy weather, a particular hazard to the blind. One night when we’d been hit with a snow and ice storm, the power went out, and Brady asked me to walk him to Otis’s house.

They were both widowed older men, and liked to share company. I walked Brady over a couple of hills to Otis’s house, which was dark, as were all the houses in the neighborhood. Otis was there at his door to greet us. But I couldn’t see him. The sky was cloudy, the houses were dark, the streetlights were out, and the interior of his house was dark as a deep cave.

“Hello, Jack, good to see you,” the darkness said.

I walked in and ran into a wall. The next five minutes were a comedy of errors. My errors, of course. Brady and Otis knew their way around the house. I didn’t. I was stumbling over ottomans, bonking into cabinets, knocking things off tables without even knowing what they were. I couldn’t tell where Otis and Brady were, but they seemed to know where I was.

“Sorry, Jack, I should have told you about that bookshelf,” Otis said. He didn’t have a mean bone in his body, and seemed genuinely concerned that I might hurt myself. “Be careful about the glass door to your left.”

I finally found the chair they directed me to and sat with them for a bit, chatting about the weather and contemplating this unexpected inversion. Our circumstance upended the unjust rules we’d all been living with for decades.

They were probably relieved when this sighted oaf found the door. “You sure you’re okay?” Brady asked.

It was a memorable evening.

Jack Neely is the director of the Knoxville History Project, a nonprofit devoted to exploring, disseminating, and celebrating Knoxville's cultural heritage. He’s also one of the most popular and influential writers in the area, known for his books and columns. The Scruffy Citizen surveys the city of Knoxville's life and culture in the context of its history, with emphasis on what makes it unique and how its past continues to affect and inform its future.

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