Nashvillians Who Stood behind the Sit-ins: A. The Trainers and the Partners

by Kathy B. Lauder.

A significant number of the participants in the Nashville Sit-ins became nationally known as heroes in the protest movement that would ultimately bring about the Civil Rights Acts of 1964 and 1968, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and the desegregation of schools, neighborhoods, institutions, sports teams, and businesses across the nation. Many were high school and college students at the time of the protests. Others were leaders in the local community who played significant roles either by assisting in the non-violence training of the young heroes or in volunteering to defend them in court. And still others provided quiet but valuable support behind the scenes.

A key figure in preparing young protesters for the hardships they were likely to face was Kelly Miller Smith Sr. (1920-1984). A Mississippi native, Smith studied at Tennessee A&I before transferring to Morehouse College, where he earned a degree in religion in 1942, followed by a Bachelor of Divinity from Howard University (which awarded him an honorary doctorate in 1976, as well). By 1946 he was preaching in Vicksburg, Mississippi. In 1951 he became pastor of Nashville’s First Colored Baptist Church, Capitol Hill. He was president of the local NAACP chapter and joined other local black parents in the 1955 federal lawsuit to desegregate Nashville public schools. A steadfast advocate of nonviolence, Smith founded the Nashville Christian Leadership Council and offered his church as a training center for nonviolent protest in the months leading up to the Nashville sit-ins. In 1969, in a stunning reversal of Vanderbilt University’s earlier policies regarding the desegregation movement, Kelly Miller Smith was chosen to serve as assistant dean of Vanderbilt Divinity School. Widely honored for his leadership, he was a Merrill Fellow at Harvard Divinity School, sat on the board of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and delivered the 1983-84 Lyman Beecher Lectures at Yale University.

Historic marker from Uniontown, Pennsylvania, James Lawson’s birthplace

Smith worked closely with other community leaders of the Civil Rights Movement, including a brilliant young divinity student, James Lawson, whom Martin Luther King Jr. had called “the leading strategist of non-violence in the world.” A native of southwestern Pennsylvania, Lawson received a Bachelor’s degree from Baldwin-Wallace College (now University) near Cleveland, Ohio; spent a year in prison for resisting the draft; and traveled to India as a Methodist missionary. In India he studied Gandhi’s use of nonviolence as a tool to achieve social and political change. Returning to the U.S. in 1956, he continued his theological studies at Oberlin College. In 1957 he met Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who encouraged him to use his nonviolence training to instruct civil rights workers in the South. Lawson transferred his studies to Vanderbilt University and put together a series of workshops on nonviolence for community members. Student leaders at Nashville’s four black colleges used what they learned in these workshops to organize the highly disciplined lunch-counter sit-ins that began on February 13, 1960 and became the model for nonviolent protests across the country. More than 150 student demonstrators were jailed, and in March 1960 James Lawson was expelled from Vanderbilt for his involvement in desegregation activities. The Dean of Vanderbilt’s Divinity School, along with a number of other faculty members and students, resigned in protest of Lawson’s expulsion, but the university ignored their objections. Later that same year Lawson received his Bachelor of Sacred Theology degree (STB) from Boston University.

Nashville Mayor Ben West showed a greater willingness than most Southern politicians to listen to the students’ demands for change. In a highly publicized confrontation on the courthouse steps on April 19, 1960, he gave his support to the protesters, and on May 10, 1960, six Nashville stores desegregated their lunch counters.

Lawson joined the Nashville students and others in organizing the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) that April. He was co-author of the organization’s Statement of Purpose: “We affirm the philosophical or religious ideal of nonviolence as the foundation of our purpose, the presupposition of our faith, and the manner of our action. Nonviolence as it grows from Judaic-Christian traditions seeks a social order of justice permeated by love” (Lawson, 17 April 1960). He also participated in the Fellowship of Reconciliation, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and the 1961 Freedom Rides. He encouraged Martin Luther King Jr. to travel to Memphis to help bring national attention to the sanitation workers’ strike in that city. Dr. King mentioned Lawson by name in his “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech (Memphis, 1968): “James Lawson . . . has been in this struggle for many years; he’s been to jail for struggling; but he’s still going on, fighting for the rights of his people.” The following day Dr. King was assassinated.

James Lawson was pastor of Holman United Methodist Church in Los Angeles from 1974-1999 and has continued to be active in his support of the labor movement, as well as programs supporting gay rights and reproductive choice. Not only did Vanderbilt University finally issue a long-overdue apology for his expulsion, but they invited him to return to the campus as a Distinguished University Professor. In the fall of 2021, the university opened the James Lawson Institute for the Research and Study of Nonviolent Movements, with the stated purpose of hosting “public workshops, seminars, and learning opportunities to train the next generation of community organizers equipped with the skills to make meaningful, sustainable change.”

It would probably be impossible to name all the participants in the Nashville sit-ins and other local civil rights activities. The largest number of them were students at American Baptist College, Fisk University, Meharry Medical College, or Tennessee State University (known then as Tennessee A&I), or at local high schools. Active participants in the Nashville Student Movement included Marion Barry, James Bevel, Maxine Walker Giddings, Luther Harris, Bernard Lafayette, James M. Lawson Jr., Paul LePrad, John Lewis (later a U.S. congressman from Georgia), Earl May, Diane Nash, Novella Page, Rev. Kelly Miller Smith, C. T. Vivian, Matthew Walker Jr., and Jim Zwerg.

In 1961, in the face of a Board of Regents policy, fourteen students from Tennessee Agricultural & Industrial State University were expelled from school for their participation in civil rights activities. At the time of their expulsion, the young Freedom Riders were in jail in Mississippi for riding a bus, which also carried white passengers, across state lines. Forty-seven years later, on September 18, 2008, those fourteen students were awarded honorary doctoral degrees by the school, now known as Tennessee State University. Three of them had died by the time of the ceremony and were granted their degrees posthumously.

Metro Historical Commission marker for Alfred Z. Kelley, erected 2019

Another community member who quietly joined the fray was Alfred Z. Kelley (1913-1994). He returned to Nashville after service in the U.S. Navy during World War II, opened Kelley’s Barber Shop, taught a few classes at Bowman’s Barber College, sang in his church choir, and became the first black secretary of the local barbers’ union. He and his wife Robbie had four children they adored, and they were delighted when the Supreme Court ordered the schools to desegregate because they lived within walking distance of a previously segregated junior high school. But when Robert, their 14-year-old, was turned away from East Junior High and sent across town to Pearl Junior High, A. Z. Kelley agreed to become the lead plaintiff in a 1955 lawsuit, representing his son and twenty other youngsters who had been barred from attending East and other Nashville city schools. Kelley’s attorneys were Z. A. Looby and Avon N. Williams Jr., assisted by Thurgood Marshall, who would become the first African American Supreme Court Justice in October 1967. By the time Kelley v Board of Education, Tennessee’s longest-running school desegregation case, was finally settled in 1998, Kelley and all three of the attorneys had died. During the period when the case was under litigation, Kelley became even more deeply involved in political and civil rights activities: he participated in the 1963 march on Washington, held the position of president of the local NAACP chapter, and served as Sergeant-at-Arms of the Tennessee State Senate.

This historic video from the Library of Congress website shows Diane Nash, Mayor Ben West, and others discussing the historic student march to the court house after the April 19, 1960, bombing of Attorney Z. Alexander Looby’s home:

Some of this material has been adapted from the Greenwood Project.

Civil Rights Timeline, 1624 – 2012

Part Four: 1961-1965.

1961 Jan          In Selma, Dallas County, Alabama, more than 80% of the African-American population live below the poverty line, and less than 1% of eligible blacks are registered to vote.

1961 Feb         Nine young African-American men are jailed in Rock Hill, South Carolina after staging a sit-in at a McCrory’s lunch counter. They are the first to use the “jail, no bail” strategy, which will lighten the financial burden of civil rights groups across the country. The tactic also keeps cities from profiting from the arrests of civil rights protesters, who further contend that paying bail and fines indicates acceptance of an immoral system and validates their own arrests.

1961 May 4     Organized by members of SNCC, the Freedom Rides will test the enforcement of Boynton v. Virginia. The first bus of thirteen Freedom Riders (7 blacks, 6 whites) leaves Washington, D.C. In Rock Hill, South Carolina, their first stop in the Deep South, two men (one is John Lewis, who will later become a U.S. Congressman) are beaten by a white mob.

A Freedom Riders bus is attacked and burned by white supremacists.

1961 May 14   One of the Freedom Riders buses is burned in Anniston, Alabama. As a second bus pulls into the Trailways Station in Birmingham, riders are attacked and badly beaten by a mob of Ku Klux Klan members. Sheriff Bull Connor orders Birmingham police to stay away. The wounded Freedom Riders eventually escape to New Orleans when Attorney General Robert Kennedy orders a plane to take them there.

1961 May 17   Unwilling to allow the KKK to defeat them, Tennessee activists take a bus from Nashville to Birmingham; Bull Connor arrests them and dumps them by the side of the road, just over the Tennessee border. They make their way back to Birmingham, but they cannot find a bus driver willing to risk driving them any further.

1961 May 20   Under orders from Robert Kennedy, the Alabama governor provides a Highway Patrol escort, and the bus roars toward Montgomery at 90 mph. At the city limits the police guards disappear, under Bull Connor’s orders, and the riders are set upon and brutally beaten by a mob of KKK supporters, who have as much as 20 uninterrupted minutes to attack the Riders with bats and iron bars before the police arrive and drive the growing mob away with teargas. Many riders are left bloody and unconscious, including reporters (the mob has quickly destroyed the cameras) and Justice Department official John Seigenthaler, who is found lying unconscious in the street. Local black citizens eventually rescue the wounded and take them to hospitals.

1961 May 21   Martin Luther King and James Farmer of CORE (who is already recruiting more Freedom Riders) speak to 1200 people in Rev. Ralph Abernathy’s Montgomery church, while a mob outside throws rocks at the windows, overturns cars, and starts fires. Over the next several days, more Freedom Riders arrive; most are jailed. By the end of the summer, more than 60 Freedom Rides have come south, and more than 300 individuals have been jailed, including many local supporters of the Riders.

1961 Winter    The Loyola University (Chicago) basketball team puts four black players on the floor at one time, breaking an unwritten rule of college sports.

1962                Darryl Hill is recruited by coach Lee Corso at the University of Maryland. He is the first African-American football player in the Southwest Conference (SWC). The only black player on the team until his senior year, he sets two receiving records that stand for decades.

1962 Sep 30    James Meredith is escorted onto the University of Mississippi (Oxford) campus by a convoy of Federal Marshals. In the riots that follow, two people are killed and many others injured.

1963 Jan          Alabama Governor George Wallace declares, “Segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever.”

Sidney Poitier wins an Oscar for Lilies of the Field.

1963 Apr 8      Sidney Poitier is the first African American to win the Academy Award for Best Actor. Starring in three major films, he is also the top box office star of the year.

1963 Apr 16    Jailed for his protest activities, Martin Luther King writes his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” which quickly becomes a classic document of the Civil Rights struggle with its assertion that individuals have a moral right to disobey unjust laws.

1963 May        Civil rights activists, including children, march in Birmingham. By the end of the first day, 700 have been arrested. When 1000 more youngsters turn out to march peacefully on May 3, Commissioner of Public Safety Bull Connor turns police dogs and high-pressure fire hoses on them. Within five days, 2500 are in jail, at least 80% of them children. After 38 days of confrontation and public outcry from across the nation, Birmingham city officials and business leaders agree to desegregate public facilities. Governor George Wallace’s refusal to accept the plan will lead to violent confrontation.

1963 Jun 11     Governor George Wallace stands in the doorway of Foster Auditorium at the University of Alabama, blocking the enrollment of two black students. Later, confronted by Federal Marshals and Deputy Attorney General Nicholas Katzenbach, he stands aside.

Deputy U. S. Attorney General Nicholas Katzenbach (right) confronts Gov. George Wallace, who is blocking the entrance to a University of Alabama building.

1963 Jun 12     NAACP activist Medgar Evers is shot to death outside his home in Jackson, Mississippi. His assailant, KKK member Byron De La Beckwith, will not be found guilty of his murder until 1994.

1963 Jul 26     The true fulfillment of Executive Order 9981 (1948)—equality of treatment and opportunity for all military personnel—requires a change in Defense Department policy, which finally occurs with the publication of Department Directive 5120.36, issued fifteen years to the day after Truman’s original order. This major policy shift, ordered by Secretary of Defense Robert J. McNamara, expands the military’s responsibility to eliminate off-base discrimination detrimental to the military effectiveness of black servicemen.

1963 Aug 28   250,000 civil rights supporters take part in the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. The highlight of the event occurs when Martin Luther King Jr. delivers his “I Have a Dream” speech from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.

1963 Sep         Voter registration volunteers in Selma, Alabama, face arrests, beatings, and death threats. Thirty-two black schoolteachers who attempt to register to vote are fired by the all-white school board. After the September 15 church bombing, students begin lunch counter sit-ins – 300 are arrested, including John Lewis of SNCC.

1963 Sep 15    Four young girls, ages 11 to 14, are killed when a bomb explodes in the basement of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama. Many other people are injured.

1963 Nov 22   President John F. Kennedy is assassinated in Dallas, Texas. Lyndon B. Johnson becomes President.

1964 Jan 3       Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. is Time Magazine’s Man of the Year.

1964 Jan 23     The 24th Amendment abolishes the poll tax, employed in Southern states since Reconstruction to make it difficult for poor blacks to vote.

1964 Jun 14     Freedom Summer (also called the Mississippi Summer Project) begins with training sessions in Ohio. This effort to register black voters, mostly in Mississippi (in which only 6.2% of eligible blacks were registered to vote) is spearheaded by SNCC, along with the NAACP, CORE, and the SCLC. Dr. Staughton Lynd, a history professor at Yale University, directs the Freedom Schools project.

1964 Jun 21     Three young civil rights workers – James Chaney, Michael Schwerner, and Andrew Goodman – are arrested in Neshoba County, Mississippi. and then disappear.

FBI poster asking for information about the three missing civil rights workers. It was 44 days before their bodies were found.

1964 Jul 2       President Johnson signs the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The law prohibits discrimination of all kinds based on race, color, religion, or national origin; it also provides the federal government with the authority to enforce civil rights legislation. To Johnson’s dismay, the passage of this law will be followed by a year of violence as white supremacists attempt to undo any gains in registering black voters. Johnson turns his attention to passing a Voting Rights act.

1964 Aug 4     The bodies of James Chaney, Michael Schwerner, and Andrew Goodman are found, buried in an earthen dam. Schwerner and Goodman have been shot; Chaney was beaten to death. The state of Mississippi refuses to charge anyone with the murders. Seven people are eventually tried for Federal crimes, but none will serve more than six years in jail.

1964 Aug 25   By the end of the 10-week Freedom Summer project, four workers have been killed, four others critically wounded, 80 beaten, and 1000 arrested. Thirty black homes or businesses and 37 churches have been bombed or burned. Many of these crimes are never solved. Since Mississippi still requires a literacy test for voter registration, of 17,000 Mississippi blacks trying to register, only 1,600 succeed.

1964 Oct 14    Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., 35, becomes the youngest person ever to receive the Nobel Peace Prize. He will deliver his powerful acceptance speech on December 10 in Oslo: “Nonviolence is the answer to the crucial political and moral question of our time – the need for man to overcome oppression and violence without resorting to violence and oppression.”

1964 Nov        Archie Walter (A. W.) Willis Jr. is elected to the Tennessee General Assembly. When he takes his seat in January 1963, he becomes the first African American to serve in the Tennessee House of Representatives since Reconstruction.

1965 Feb 18    Jimmie Lee Jackson, 26, is shot during a peaceful protest in Marion, Alabama, as he tries to protect his mother and grandfather from a beating by Alabama State Troopers. Jackson, shot at very close range, dies a week later. An Alabama Grand Jury refuses to indict James Bonard Fowler, the trooper who shot him. (See May 10, 2007.)

1965 Feb 21    Black nationalist leader Malcolm X (born Malcolm Little in Nebraska in 1925) is assassinated during a speech in Manhattan. Three members of the Black Muslim organization are accused of his murder.

1965 Mar 7     SCLC leader James Bevel organizes a 55-mile march from Selma, Alabama, to the state capitol in Montgomery – a demonstration on behalf of African-American voting rights. On the outskirts of Selma, just after crossing the Edmund Pettus Bridge, the 600 marchers are brutally assaulted, in full view of TV cameras, by heavily armed state troopers & deputies. ABC interrupts its broadcast of Judgment in Nuremberg, a Nazi war crimes documentary, to show footage of the violence. John Lewis, 25, and the Rev. Hosea Williams, 39, leading the march are clubbed to the ground, as are many others. A widely-published photograph shows 54-year-old Amelia Boynton Robinson lying unconscious on the bridge. Fifty marchers are hospitalized. The event will come to be known as “Bloody Sunday.”

Alabama troopers confront peaceful demonstrators on the Edmund Pettus Bridge. John Lewis walks at the head of the marchers (wearing light-colored trench coat, right center).

1965 Mar 9     Martin Luther King leads a second march across the Pettus Bridge. The marchers kneel in prayer, then turn back around, obeying the court order that prohibits them from going on to Montgomery. After the march, three white ministers are attacked and beaten – one (James Reeb, from Boston) dies in Birmingham, after Selma’s public hospital refuses to treat him. On the same day, demonstrations condemning “Bloody Sunday,” as the March 7 incident has come to be called, take place in 80 cities across the nation.

1965 Mar 15   President Lyndon B. Johnson makes what most consider his greatest speech to Congress as he calls for a Voting Rights bill: “It is wrong—deadly wrong—to deny any of your fellow Americans the right to vote in this country . . .. What happened in Selma is part of a far larger movement which reaches into every section and State of America. It is the effort of American Negroes to secure for themselves the full blessings of American life. Their cause must be our cause too. Because it is not just Negroes, but really it is all of us, who must overcome the crippling legacy of bigotry and injustice. And we shall overcome.”

1965 Mar 16   A Federal judge rules in Williams v. Wallace: “The law is clear that the right to petition one’s government for the redress of grievances may be exercised in large groups . . .. These rights may . . . be exercised by marching, even along public highways.” Granting the protesters their First Amendment rights to march also means the State of Alabama can no longer obstruct them.

1965 Mar 21   Nearly 8,000 people, of all races, begin the third march from Selma to Montgomery. The 5-day march covers a 54-mile route along the “Jefferson Davis Highway”(U.S. 80). Protected by 4,000 troops (U.S. Army, FBI agents and Federal Marshals, and the Alabama National Guard under Federal command), the marchers average around ten miles a day and will finally arrive at the Alabama Capitol building on the 25th.

1965 Mar 23   The marchers pass through cold, rainy Lowndes County, where, although African Americans make up 81% of the population, not one is registered to vote, whereas the 2240 white registrants on the voting rolls constitute 118% of the adult white population!

1965 Mar 25   Martin Luther King speaks to the marchers in Montgomery (“How Long, Not Long”) and they are entertained by Harry Belafonte, Tony Bennett, Peter, Paul & Mary, Sammy Davis Jr., and others in a “Stars for Freedom” rally.

1965 Apr         Fannie Lou Hamer and other SNCC members help found the Mississippi Freedom Labor Union to organize cotton workers.

1965 May 19   Patricia Harris becomes the first African American since Ebenezer Bassett (1869, Haiti) to serve as an American ambassador (Luxembourg).

1965 Aug 6     President Johnson signs the Voting Rights Act of 1965. This bill, urgently sought by Johnson, along with Dr. King and other Civil Rights leaders, eliminates such devices as poll taxes and literacy tests, and it authorizes federal registrars to register qualified voters.

President Lyndon B. Johnson hands Martin Luther King Jr. the pen with which he has just signed the 1965 Voting Rights Act (Library of Congress photograph).

1965 Aug 11   A large-scale race riot begins in the Watts area of Los Angeles, sparked by a traffic arrest. As community leaders try to restore order, rioters block fire-fighters from burning buildings, and vandalism and looting take place throughout the area. Nearly 14,000 National Guardsmen are sent in to help restore order. By the time the violence ends six days later, 34 people have been killed, 1,032 are injured, and 3,952 are arrested. Nearly 1,000 buildings have been damaged or destroyed, and the city is left with $40 million in property damage.

1965 Sep 15    The first episode of the television series I Spy is broadcast. This is the first drama series on American television to feature a black actor (Bill Cosby) in a starring role.

1965 Sep 24    President Johnson issues Executive Order 11246, which requires government contractors to “take affirmative action” toward prospective minority employees in all aspects of hiring and employment.

Adapted from a timeline created by Kathy B. Lauder for the TN State Library and Archives, 2013.