by Sue Loper.
Four decades ago, during a time of sweeping social change throughout our nation, a determined group of Nashville students began a nonviolent revolution in this city that changed history. On February 13, 1960, after months of workshops centered on the methods of nonviolent protest, a group of African-American students from local universities sat down at a lunch counter and refused to move until they were served.
This was the start of the sit-in movement in Nashville, inaugurating what Martin Luther King, Jr., deemed the best-organized movement in the South. It was not an easy process: response to the group’s activities was sometimes violent. Nevertheless, the movement grew, as individuals and groups raised bail money or represented the students in court. One of those advocates was lawyer Z. Alexander Looby. In retaliation for Looby’s support of the protestors, his home was bombed on April 19, 1960. Later that day the students gathered for a spontaneous march to the courthouse to confront Nashville’s mayor. Diane Nash, spokesperson for the group, asked Mayor Ben West whether he thought it morally right for a restaurant to deny an individual a meal because of the color of his skin. Mayor West agreed the practice was wrong.
That moment sparked important changes in the city — within three weeks, Nashville lunch counters began serving black customers — but it was not the end of the student movement. Many went on to join the Freedom Riders and to work faithfully in voter registration efforts all over the South.
Years later David Halberstam described the experiences of those students in his book The Children. Nashvillian Bill King was so moved by the author’s description of the fortitude, persistence, and faith of the young protestors, he believed the events in Nashville and the work of “the children” should be memorialized.
In 2001 Mr. King and his wife Robin, friends of the Nashville Public Library, set up an endowment enabling the library to create a civil rights collection focusing on the Nashville sit-in movement. The collection includes print materials, an oral history project, an audio-visual library, microfilm research materials, and a collection of dissertations.
A library space was redesigned to intensify the focus of the collection. The new area opened on December 6, 2003, and is now a mainstay of the Nashville Public Library Special Collections Division: The Nashville Room. The setting includes a symbolic lunch counter and stools: glass “placemats” on the countertop list the ten rules sit-in participants were required to follow, and a timeline of national, state, and local civil rights events adorns the backsplash of the counter. Large photographs around the room depict highlights of the movement. A media room and a classroom/lecture space offer screens and touchpads for individual and group viewing. On a glass wall are the words of Martin Luther King, Jr.: “I come to Nashville not to bring inspiration, but to gain inspiration from the great movement that has taken place in this community.” Over the doorway is a quote by John Lewis, one of the 1961 students, later to become a U. S. Representative from Georgia: “If not us, then who; if not now, then when?”
At the dedication of the room, February 14-15, 2004, John Lewis, moved to tears by seeing his quotation over the doorway, stood in the civil rights room as the leader of the “Faith and Politics Tour,” which travels annually, with invited U.S. legislators, to significant civil rights locations. Lewis’s co-chair for this trip was Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist. The library’s Saturday civil rights workshops drew 800 people; 1300 came to hear the panel speak on Sunday. This powerful discussion, moderated by John Seigenthaler, featured Reverend C. T. Vivian, Reverend James Lawson, Diane Nash, Congressman John Lewis (Georgia), Reverend James Bevel, and Reverend Bernard Lafayette, speaking to the overflow crowd. Other program participants included Nashville Library Director Donna Nicely, Nashville Mayor Bill Purcell and Vice-Mayor Howard Gentry, U.S. Congressman Jim Cooper and Senator Bill Frist, and Tennessee Governor Phil Bredesen. The program concluded with the singing of “We Shall Overcome,” led by Guy and Candie Carawan, folk singers whose songs have long inspired the civil rights movement. No one wanted the program to end: the library, scheduled to close at 5:00, remained open until after 7:00.
The program and reception were funded in part by the First Baptist Church Capitol Hill, a gathering place for sixties protestors and a training site for nonviolent protest activity. Other supporters included The First Amendment Center and The William Winter Center for Racial Justice, with primary support for the event coming from Robin and Bill King.
Additional contributions included a photographic exhibit of the civil rights movement by Harold Lowe; a film provided by Nashville Public Television, from their production entitled Nashville Memories; and a film of the event made by Metro Channel 3, which continues to make it available. Nashville Public Television filmed segments of the program for their popular series, Tennessee Crossroads.
Today the civil rights room is an active place. Cumberland Valley Girl Scouts use its resources as they work on civil rights badges. Schools, churches, and civic groups come for tours; colleges and universities use the Lowe Photograph Collection. Staff members are working with Fisk University to prepare a traveling exhibit about the women of the civil rights movement. The Civil Rights Oral History Collection continues to grow as the words of participants are captured for future generations. Recently a correspondent from the Azerbaijani newspaper Baku Sun asked to copy the photograph of the silent march to the courthouse. The photograph will accompany the Sun’s interview with USAID Country Coordinator William McKinney, who was a participant in the Nashville sit-ins. The seeds planted by Nashville’s nonviolent revolution continue to produce fruit.