Fifty years ago, Nashville experienced one of its most pivotal moments, when passions and possibilities combined to place the city at the fulcrum of enormous social change.
In 1960, the civil rights movement was already well under way and had seen notable successes, such as the Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education, which ruled that segregated schools were inherently unequal.
But until February 1960, the battle for civil rights had been fought mostly in courtrooms and legislative chambers. In the South, schools were still segregated; water fountains and bathrooms were designated “white” or “colored”; the John Birch Society sponsored billboards that proclaimed “Impeach Earl Warren,” the chief justice of the Supreme Court who penned Brown v. Board; department store dressing rooms were reserved for whites; and downtown lunch counters had prominent signage stating, “Whites Only.”
That was about to change.
More than 50 years ago, a handful of Nashville college students from Fisk University, Tennessee A&I (later Tennessee State) and American Baptist Theological Seminary, along with religious leaders such as Kelly Miller Smith and James Lawson, a young Vanderbilt divinity student who was later expelled for his role, began to talk about mass collective action. They began to train in nonviolent protest tactics modeled after Gandhi’s mass movements in India and South Africa. They learned how to keep their composure in the face of heckling and violence.
Some of these teenagers later became famous and influential, such as Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., former Washington, D.C. Mayor Marion Barry, and activist Diane Nash. Others still live in Nashville, such as former Metro Councilman Kwame Leo Lillard, Dr. Allen Cason Jr., Matthew Walker Jr., Mary Jean Smith, Etta Simpson Ray, Frederick Leonard, Alice Johnson, Sandra Brown and many others.
On Feb. 1, 1960, the first lunch counter sit-in took place in Greensboro, N.C. The first official Nashville sit-in took place on Feb. 13, 1960, although the students had done practice runs at Sloan’s and Harvey’s in late 1959.
On Feb. 13, 124 black students marched from downtown through a rare snowfall, Lillard remembered.
“There was eight inches of snow on the ground,” Lillard said. “We walked down in sneakers, no coats, no gloves. We were poor college students.”
“It was scary, but it was something we decided to do,” Ray told The City Paper.
“I was prepared for whatever happened. I knew if we were hit or something, we’d have to take it,” Cason said.
They marched downtown, into Woolworth’s, S.H. Kress and McLellan’s, purchased some items and then quietly sat down at the stores’ lunch counters. The stunned management first told them to leave and then, when they refused, shut down the lunch counters. But from then on, at every lunch counter in downtown Nashville, black students returned, sat down quietly and politely, and simply waited to be served.
The white reaction was at first befuddlement. But quickly some whites turned vicious. The protesters were heckled mercilessly, shoved, spit upon and pelted with salt, pepper, milk — even beer.
“You got to program yourself. We had love; you had hate,” Cason told about 15 people, most of them white, who gathered on Jan. 15, 2010, for a walking tour of the sites where the sit-ins took place.
“You have to look at that as God did,” he said when asked about protesters being injured, having cigarettes snubbed out on their skin, being beaten by furious whites. “She’s been hurt, but she’s going to be well. The hate brought against me, I sent back love.”
Shortly after the sit-ins began, the ministers of African-American churches met and threw their support behind the protesters.
As first Nashville and then the world watched, the violence of the white reaction escalated until several students were pulled off their stools and beaten. On Feb. 27, 1960, the first mass arrest took place in downtown Nashville. No whites were arrested, but more than 100 black students were hauled to jail.
Larry Woods, a white Nashville attorney, remembers being downtown and seeing “the thugs and the police paddy wagons.” He was an eighth-grader at what is now McGavock High School. To him, the black teenagers “dressed in their Sunday-go-to-meeting clothes” looked mature and serious.
“The feelings were so clear,” he said. “Here were these people who were trying to buy a hamburger and getting beaten up for it. It just made no sense. … The mob scene was very scary, bewildering and scary, because the wrong people were getting arrested.”
Matthew Walker Jr. was an 18-year-old freshman at Fisk when he was arrested on Feb. 27, 1960. He had to call his mother from jail. When she wept, “I told her to be cool,” Walker said. His mother’s side of that story is one of the most moving segments of the award-winning PBS documentary Eyes on the Prize.
The students refused to pay their fines, saying that would undermine their position that the arrests were unjust, and served a month in jail. The black community responded to those arrests with a boycott of downtown stores that began on April 2, 1960. Despite the sweep of Feb. 27, hundreds more students showed up downtown regularly, to sit quietly at the counters waiting to be served.
Then, before dawn on April 19, 1960, an attacker tossed dynamite through the windows of the north Nashville home of attorney Z. Alexander Looby, one on the team of black lawyers who were defending the jailed students. Most of the home was demolished. The blast was so loud that windows in a nearby dormitory were blown out. Miraculously, Looby and his wife, who were sleeping in a back bedroom, were not seriously injured.
News of the bombing spread through the already tense black community in north Nashville and rippled out into the white community as well, where Looby was known and respected. As the impact of the bombing sank in and church congregations mobilized, an estimated 4,000 people marched in silence from Looby’s home to the courthouse downtown.
When the marchers arrived, Mayor Ben West came out to meet them on the steps. In one of the most famous exchanges in Nashville history, and in fact the entire civil rights movement, the beautiful young Fisk student Diane Nash, flanked by kids who would later become national leaders of the civil rights movement — Marion Barry, John Lewis, C.T. Vivian, Barnard Lafayette, James Bevel and others — asked West two simple questions. The first was whether he thought desegregation was wrong. The mayor answered, “Yes.” Nash pounced. “Then mayor, do you recommend that the lunch counters be desegregated?”
The mayor answered simply: “Yes.” In the next breath, he waffled. “That’s up to the store managers, of course,” but that “yes” was the death knell for Jim Crow in Nashville.
The next day, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. came to Nashville and spoke at Fisk, praising the students for their efforts, bravery and discipline.
“He supported us,” Cason said. “We didn’t want him to get involved,” he added, for fear that the leader of the entire civil rights movement would be hurt. “But anytime we needed him, he was there.”
On May 10, 1960, after nearly three months of protest, six lunch counters in downtown Nashville served black customers.
Integration still not achieved
Mary Jean Smith did not participate in the 1960 sit-ins, although she was a student at Tennessee A&I and attended the meetings at the First Baptist Church — a de facto training center and meeting place for those in the movement — and elsewhere. A year later, however, in February 1961, she took part in the “stand-ins” outside Nashville’s downtown movie theaters.
“We would go to the theaters and ask for a ticket, and of course they wouldn’t sell you one,” she said. The protesters would then stand in line outside the theater.
Smith was arrested downtown on Feb. 27, 1961, one year to the day after the first mass arrests in 1960. She had left the line of protesters waiting outside the theater to take part in a sit-in at a restaurant across the street but was arrested before she got through the doors. “When I stepped out of the line, the guy who took my place got hit by paint” hurled down from a window above.
That summer she had no intention of heading out with the Freedom Riders. She had finished her exams and was working a summer job to pay for her next semester. “I had no interest in dying right then,” she said.
But she was on a bus on West End Avenue where a white man had his radio on loud enough for Smith to hear that the Freedom Riders were on a hunger strike. The white man said, “I hope all those niggers die,” Smith recalled.
“That was when the Lord said, ‘That’s where you’re supposed to be,’ ” Smith said.
She got on the Greyhound bus in Nashville with seven other protesters. When she stepped off the bus in Jackson, Miss., she was led straight to a paddy wagon and served 39 days in jail, most of it in the notorious “Parchman Farm,” also known as the Mississippi State Penitentiary.
Cason was part of the same group. When they returned to Nashville, they had all been expelled from Tennessee A&I.
Smith said she felt betrayed by Tennessee State for a long time.
Despite the tremendous achievements of the Nashville Sit-In Movement in 1960 and everything that followed, it was still years before Nashville was really desegregated, and even yet it is heavily segregated by neighborhood.
City should honor the sit-in movement
Even now, Lillard said, the city has not embraced the significance of what took place at Nashville’s lunch counters in the winter and spring of 1960, and later
through the long, hot years of the ’60s.
There is little signage and no monument to these events in downtown Nashville. The only historical markers that mention the Nashville sit-ins are at the corner of Jefferson Street and Dr. D.B. Todd Boulevard, on the Fisk campus, and at Charlotte and Eighth avenues, where the First Colored Baptist Church once stood.
A plaque was placed in City Hall in 1995.
The Nashville Student Movement Legacy Foundation is made up largely of the TSU veterans of the sit-ins, who were granted honorary doctorate degrees in 2008, 47 years after they were expelled.
At the Jan. 15 event, they unveiled a list of demands to the city of Nashville. “Reparations, if you like,” Lillard said. “You owe us for what we did.”
•Establish a walking tour of the sites, prepare a self-guiding brochure, and make it available at downtown hotels, restaurants, the library and other public places
•Erect a civil rights monument
•Integrate a learning unit on the sit-ins into Nashville public schools’ curriculum
•Launch an initiative through the juvenile courts and other groups, such as the Legacy Foundation itself, to discourage gang activity in Nashville
•Place a Wall of Honor downtown with the names of those who participated in the sit-ins
•Place a permanent marker at the Fifth Avenue entrance to the downtown Arcade outside Walgreens, which was the first downtown lunch counter to serve blacks
•Place historical markers at the former home of attorney Looby and at historic black churches
•Develop a mentoring program for Nashville’s at-risk students
“This is our invoice to Nashville,” Lillard said.