|Nashville students launched lunch counter sit-ins in 1960.
When Nashville student protesters entered downtown Woolworths, S. H. Kress, and McClellan stores and asked to be served at the lunch counters on February 13, 1960, many people thought they were simply copy cats of the Greensboro, North Carolina actions which had begun on February 1 and attracted national media attention. While the sensational publicity around the attacks on the non-violent Greensboro protesters accelerated the launch of the Nashville campaign, it had been in the works for some time. In fact no Southern Civil Rights campaign was ever so diligently planned and prepared for. The activists involved became not only models for the movement, but key figures in it throughout the ‘60’s right up to this very day fifty-six years later.
Nashville, home to a large, and compared to most Southern cities, relatively prosperous Black population including an educated elite. As the post-Reconstruction Jim Crow laws and night riding terrorism swept the South in the late 19th Century Blacks from rural Tennessee and from the Deep South found some refuge in the city. But it, too adopted strict segregation. None-the-less local Fisk University and other all-black schools helped anchor the community along with the African American Churches. They helped lend leadership and guidance efforts to overturn Jim Crow laws by litigation or protest that stretched back to 1905.
In 1958 the Reverend Kelly Miller Smith, pastor of First Baptist Church, Capitol Hill organized the Nashville Christian Leadership Council (NCLC), an affiliate of the Southern Christian Leadership Council. Unlike older, established Civil Rights organizations like the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) the new organization embraced non-violent direct action as demonstrated in the Montgomery Bus Boycott and other campaigns as more effective than relying on judicial remedies.
Beginning in March of that year the NCLC began the first of many workshops on using nonviolent tactics to challenge segregation. These sessions were led by James Lawson, a minister and candidate for a Doctorate of Divinity degree at Vanderbilt University, the so-called Harvard of the South. Lawson was already a mature leader with deep ties both to the Civil Rights movement and non-violence. He became a member and activist in the radical Quaker-organized Fellowship of Reconciliation and the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) which together organized some of the first anti-segregation sit-ins at Northern lunch counters in the late ‘40’s. He served 14 months in prison for draft resistance in 1951. He then became a Methodist missionary in India where he studied Mohandas Gandhi’s satyagraha—the principles of non-violent resistance. After returning to study at Oberlin College in Ohio, he was urged in 1956 by the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. to “Come South. We don’t have anyone like you down there.” Lawson took him up on it, moved to Nashville, enrolled at Vanderbilt and accepted a position as Southern Director of CORE.
|Student Diane Nash and the Rev. Kelly Miller Smith of the Nashville Christian Leadership Council were among key figures in the sit-ins.
Among those who participated in Lawson’s intensive training were students Diane Nash, James Bevel, Bernard Lafayette, Marion Barry, C. T. Vivian, and John Lewis all of whom would play key roles in the upcoming sit-in campaign, but would on important staff, leadership, and organizing positions with the SCLC, CORE, the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and other Civil Rights organizations.
By 1959 the NCLC and the Nashville Student Movement made up students from Fisk, Tennessee A&I (later Tennessee State University), American Baptist Theological Seminary (later American Baptist College), and Meharry Medical College along with a few from semi-integrated Vanderbilt, determined that the lunch counters in downtown stores would be the prime target of their first operation. The stores were all heavily patronized by Black shoppers but their lunch counters were all closed to non-whites. Without access to those counters in the days before fast food joints neither Black shoppers nor any of the many Black employees of downtown business had any way to have a meal. But the lunch counters were easily accessible, highly visible, and a notorious symbol of Jim Crow.
The upcoming campaign was carefully planned. In late 1959 Lawson and student members of the project committee met with two of the most influential downtown merchants, Department store owners Fred Harvey and John Sloan to ask them to voluntarily integrate their lunch counters. Both expressed limited sympathy but said that seating Blacks would cost them more money than the increased patronage would bring in.
In November, with no public fanfare, students quietly ran two test runs test the response of each store. First at Harvey’s Department Store on November 28, the beginning of the busy Christmas shopping season, and then on December 5 at the Cain-Sloan Store, students by the pair or in small groups casually set down at the lunch counters and tried to order food. They were politely refused at Harvey’s and much more rudely and contemptuously dismissed at Cain-Sloan. The students remained calm and friendly, lingered briefly at each store, and then departed without incident. The press and public never became aware that anything had happened.
Based on the experience, training intensified and leaders identified more targets. Lawson planned to launch a full campaign in late spring, but when the Greensboro sit-ins hit the press, 500 new volunteers showed up and the students overrode his misgiving and decided to launch the campaign.
The first wave of demonstrators as put through more training, including acting out intimidation, humiliation, and violence that would be heaped on them. They were drilled in the written code of the protests:
Do not strike back or curse if abused. Do not laugh out. Do not hold conversations with the floor walker. Do not leave your seat until your leader has given you permission to do so. Do not block entrances to stores outside nor the aisles inside. Do show yourself courteous and friendly at all times. Do sit straight; always face the counter. Do report all serious incidents to your leader. Do refer information seekers to your leader in a polite manner. Remember the teachings of Jesus, Gandhi, Martin Luther King. Love and nonviolence is the way.
At 12:30 pm on Saturday, February 13 120 students, almost all of them Black, entered the Woolworths, S. H. Kress, and McClellan stores and asked to be served at the lunch counters. The surprised staffs at all of the stores refused service. The protestors remained on their stools for two hours, mostly without incident, and then left quietly. This time the local press set up and took notice. Downtown business leaders and city authorities began consultations on what to do if the sit-ins were repeated.
On Monday, February 15 the Baptist Minister’s Conference of Nashville, representing 79 congregations, unanimously voted to support the student movement. With the firm backing of the influential Black Church an economic boycott of all of the Downtown stores with lunch counters was called almost immediately crippling the businesses.
On Thursday 200 students returned to the original targets plus Grants. By arrangement, all of the lunch counters immediately closed. After a brief sit-in all of the students again departed quietly and safely. Things started to heat up two days later, another Saturday when 350 students returned to the four stores and added Walgreens. This time large crowds of mostly young, angry and agitated Whites gathered outside the stores screaming curses, threats, and abuse. Police on the scene prevented any violence and once again the sit-ins ended after three hours when the students marched to a public meeting at Rev. Smith’s First Baptist Church.
The Nashville actions sparked similar sit-ins in other cities and towns, few of which had leadership trained in non-violence or protesters drilled in its demanding disciplines. Riots broke out in Chattanooga after demonstrators there were attacked. Panic began to spread through the white establishment.
|Lunchcounter workers give a rough bums rush to a sit-in participant.
On February 27 police were notably absent when sit-ins resumed at Woolworths, McClellan, and Walgreens. This time mobs of young Whites entered the store and at Woolworths and McClellan’s attacked several of the demonstrators, pulling them from stools, pummeling them with fists, and kicking as they lay curled on the floor. At least one was injured when thrown down a flight of stairs. When police made their tardy appearance the attackers fled as if on cue. None were pursued or arrested. Instead police ordered the protesters to leave the lunch counters. All refuse. 81 students, some still bleeding from injuries were arrested. Crowds of respectable onlookers applauded as they were loaded into police vehicles. They were charged with loitering and disorderly conduct.
The riotous encounter attracted national TV attention for the first time and front page coverage in Nashville’s two fiercely competing newspapers.
When the first trials opened on February 28, 2000 gathered peacefully outside the city courthouse in support of those arrested. Thirteen pro bono lawyers led by veteran Black Civil Rights attorney Z. Alexander Looby, represented the students. In an odd charade City Judge Andrew J. Doyle agreed with Looby’s arguments to dismiss the loitering causes then stepped down from the bench and turned the rest of the trial over to a hand-picked Special Judge, John I. Harris. Harris found the defendants guilty of disorderly conduct and fined each one $50.
|A Fiske Student in jail.
The student’s refused to pay the fines, electing instead to serve 33 days in the county workhouse—an enormous expense for the city. Diane Nash spoke for all of the students when she explained to the press, “We feel that if we pay these fines we would be contributing to and supporting the injustice and immoral practices that have been performed in the arrest and conviction of the defendants.”
Also on the 29th Lawson and a group of Black ministers met with Nashville Mayor Ben West, a supposed racial moderate facing heavy pressure from aroused Whites. The avowedly segregationist Nashville Banner denounced Lawson as an outside agitator and a “flannel mouth Negro.” Embarrassed by its uppity student, Vanderbilt’s Executive Committee issued an ultimatum to Lawson to end his involvement with the sit-ins and Civil Rights groups or face expulsion. He refused and was immediately and unceremoniously expelled.
On March 3 Mayor West attempted to defuse the situation in the time honored way with the appointment of a Blue Ribbon committee of civic leaders to study the problem. While the Presidents of Fisk and Tennessee A&I were included in the panel no members of the Student Movement or any Black ministers backing the sit-ins and boycott were left out. After weeks of study, the Committee announced a “compromise.” Each store would maintain a Whites Only section but also have a section open to both Blacks and Whites. The Student Movement rejected that plan out of hand.
Meanwhile sit-ins continued every few days, as did attacks on the activists, arrests, trials, and jailing’s. The economic boycott was also becoming more damaging as the stores were losing their very profitable annual sales of Easter finery to the Black Community.
|Attorney Z. Alexander Looby's home after it was bombed.
At 5:30 am on April 10, a powerful bomb was tossed through the front window of attorney Looby’s home virtually destroying. Looby and his wife were asleep in a back bedroom and escaped uninjured. But across the street 400 windows of a Meharry Medical College dormitory were blown out injuring several students with flying glass.
By noon 4,000 people gathered at City Hall to denounce the bombing and demand city action to end segregation. Mayor West met them on the steps. He had to listen as C.T. Vivian read a prepared statement accusing him of ignoring the moral issues of segregation and turning a blind eye to violence and injustice. Diane Nash challenged him directly to say if he felt it was wrong to discriminate on the basis of skin color. When he said it was she asked him if he thought the lunch counters should be desegregated. He replied “Yes” but then tried to duck responsibility by saying, “That's up to the store managers, of course.” The more moderate Tennessean played up the affirmative action and took it as signal to the store owners to change their ways. The Banner, on the other hand, emphasized the second part of the Mayor’s response and urged store owners to stand fast.
The owners themselves were dismayed by developments and splits were opening between hard liners and moderates. The Mayor’s off hand endorsement of desegregation and pressure from other civic leaders began to have its affect.
On April 12, the day after the Looby bombing, Martin Luther King himself arrived to address students at Fiske. Unlike his arrival at other Civil Rights flashpoints he did not come to take public leadership of the movement. Instead, he came to praise what had been accomplished. He the Nashville movement as “the best organized and the most disciplined in the Southland, and added that he came to the city “not to bring inspiration but to gain inspiration from the great movement that has taken place in this community.” These were not just hollow words. Diane Nash, C. T. Vivian, and James Bevel all became trusted associates in the SCLC in the thick of many campaigns including Birmingham and Selma. John Lewis went on to become a Freedom Rider and Chair of SNCC and a key ally in Selma. He would continue to rely on Lawson for advice and inspiration and Lawson personally trained thousands of volunteers in non-violent resistance.
After several weeks of secret negotiations as sit-ins continued, an agreement to end lunch counter segregation was finally reached in the first week in May. Both the store owners and Student Movement agreed to carefully prepare for the big change. Store owners were given time to train their employees. Quiet test runs were scheduled on mutually agreed dates. These test runs would be made at each of the stores over a period of two weeks. The first, on May 10 quietly opened six lunch counters with pairs and small groups quietly being seated and served without incident. The local press was informed but asked to refrain from inflammatory coverage. After all 10 targeted downtown locations, including the Greyhound and Trailways bus depots, were tested, the merchants met and agreed that desegregation had been successful and without further instances. Unrestricted seating was opened at all lunch counters and the consumer boycott of the stores called off.
Nashville became the first city in the South to desegregate any of its public accommodations. But there was more to accomplish. The Student Movement turned its attention to other local targets and disciplined sit-ins, pickets, and other actions continued at restaurants, movie theaters, public swimming pools, and other segregated facilities until the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
In addition to those who went on to notable leadership positions, many students continued their commitment to the Civil Rights movement and prominent in so many campaigns and battles. Many became respected leaders in their communities.
Of all of the main participants, only Rev. James Lawton and John Lewis are still living. Lawton went on to a long career as a Methodist pastor, Civil Rights leader, anti-war activist, and educator who continues to this day to train young people in non-violence. I had the privilege and honor of meeting him a few years ago when he was a featured speaker at a Unitarian Universalist General Assembly. A deeply embarrassed Vanderbilt apologized to him at its 2006 graduation exercises. He is now, at 87 years old, an official member of the Vanderbilt faculty.
John Lewis, of course, is a longtime Democratic Congressman from Georgia and among the most revered and respected living African Americans.
We owe them and their departed brothers and sisters so much.