by Kathy B. Lauder and Tara Mielnik.
The Civil Rights Movement in Nashville was led, for the most part, by college students and their instructors in the techniques of nonviolent protest. The Nashville sit-ins became a model for many other successful desegregation efforts across the nation. However, working in the background to support the protestors were some remarkably gifted individuals. Lawyers, journalists, educators, and many other local citizens donated their time and their skills to support the movement.
Attorney Z. Alexander Looby (1899-1972), who became a powerful force behind the protestors, came to the U.S. from Antigua at 15. He earned degrees from Howard (A.B., 1922), Columbia (LL.B., 1925), and NYU (J.D., 1926). Following his move to Nashville, he taught economics at Fisk University, passed the Tennessee bar, and became legal director of the NAACP. In 1946, when Thurgood Marshall came to Columbia, Tennessee, to represent 25 black citizens after an outbreak of racial violence, he requested Looby’s help in mounting their defense. They successfully won acquittals for nearly all of them. After State Senator Ben West, soon to become mayor of Nashville, guided a charter reform bill through the General Assembly, which allowed voters to elect city council members from individual districts, rather than choosing all of them at large. As a result, in 1951 local black residents were able to elect the first two African American council members since 1911 – attorneys Z. A. Looby and Robert Lillard. Five years later Looby and Avon Williams were the plaintiff’s attorneys in Kelley v. Nashville Board of Education, which ultimately ended Nashville school segregation. Looby, Williams, Robert Lillard, Coyness Ennix, and Adolpho Birch led the volunteer legal team for student protesters during the 1960 Nashville sit-ins. When Looby’s house was dynamited in April 1960, nearly 3,000 demonstrators marched to the court house to confront Mayor Ben West, whose unprecedented support soon (May 10 1960) ended lunch counter segregation in Nashville. By October, Looby’s legal team managed to have all the charges “for conspiracy to disrupt trade and commerce” dismissed against 91 student protesters. Looby was a city/Metro councilman for 20 years and a founder of Kent College of Law.
Looby’s partner in many of his precedent-setting legal events was his former intern, Avon Nyanza Williams Jr. (1921-1994). A native of Knoxville, Williams earned an L.L.B. (1947) and an L.L.M. (1948) from Boston University. After interning with Looby in Nashville, he set up a law practice in Knoxville, often working closely with the NAACP Legal Defense Fund. Williams filed Tennessee’s first school desegregation case (Anderson County, 1950), and his lawsuit to admit African American students to the UT graduate school (1951) was one of seven discrimination cases he argued before the U.S. Supreme Court. In 1953 he moved to Nashville, partnered with Looby, and took an active (and mostly unpaid) role in civil rights cases ranging from lunch counter and school desegregation to housing discrimination. A founder of the Davidson County Independent Political Council and the Tennessee Voters Council, he was one of Tennessee’s first two African American state senators, serving from 1969-1990. His lawsuit to merge UT Nashville with TSU led to a landmark legal decision and the renaming of the downtown campus after him.
Alabama teenager Coyness Loyal Ennix Sr. (1901-1984) came to Nashville to attend Roger Williams University. Later, having graduated from Howard University Law School (1931), he returned to Nashville, where he and Z. Alexander Looby founded Kent College of Law to train other African American attorneys. Known for his flamboyant style of dress, Ennix was well known as a civic and political leader in Nashville’s black community. In the late 1940s he founded The Solid Block, a political organization which helped abolish Tennessee’s poll tax and supported African American candidates. Ennix himself ran for City Council (1951) but lost to Looby and Robert Lillard, Nashville’s first black councilmen in 40 years. Ennix was the first African American to serve on the Nashville Housing Authority and the Nashville Auditorium Commission. He was also the first black member of the Board of Education, serving during the arduous school desegregation process. One of thirteen volunteer defense attorneys for students arrested during the February 1960 Nashville Sit-ins, he was an active member of First Baptist Church, Capitol Hill, site of many Civil Rights training sessions.
Commercial college graduate Robert E. Lillard (1907-1991) worked as a garage attendant in order to take night classes at Kent College of Law, while also organizing the 15th Ward Colored Voters and Civic Club. After being admitted to the bar (1936), he opened a law practice and drove a fire truck for Engine Company No. 11. In 1951, ignoring bribes and threats, he ran for city council, joining Alexander Looby as the first black council members since Solomon Harris (1911). During his 20 years of service, Lillard never missed a regular council meeting. He assisted in desegregating the Parthenon and helped make Cameron High School the city’s second African American secondary school, and he joined other black lawyers volunteering their legal services during the 1960 sit-ins. The first African American vice mayor pro tem (1967), he was admitted to plead in the U.S. Court of Appeals, Sixth Circuit Court, and U.S. Supreme Court, and he served as judge of the First Circuit Court, Tenth Judicial District.
Adolpho A. Birch (1932-2011), the son of an Episcopal priest, grew up in Washington, D.C., and earned both his B.A. and J.D. from Howard University. During his term of service in the U.S. Navy, he studied for and passed the bar exam (1957), a year before his honorable discharge. After moving to Nashville (1958), he opened a private law practice with Robert Lillard, also teaching law courses at Meharry Medical College, Fisk University, and Tennessee A&I (now Tennessee State University). He was part of the volunteer legal team who defended student protestors during the Nashville Sit-ins. He was named assistant public (1963); assistant district attorney (1966 – the first black prosecutor in Davidson County); General Sessions Court judge (1969); Criminal Court judge (1978); and first black presiding judge over the Trial Courts of Davidson County (1981, the same year he became an instructor at the Nashville School of Law). The only person, black or white, to serve in every level of the Tennessee judiciary system, he was appointed to the Court of the Judiciary (1983) and the Tennessee Court of Appeals (1987). In 1990 he became only the second African American to sit on the Tennessee Supreme Court. Four years later his fellow justices selected him as Chief Justice (October 1994-May 1996), making him the first African American to hold that position. After being confirmed for another eight-year term, he again served as Chief Justice (July 1997-August 1998 and September 1999-August 2001). He retired at the end of his second term (September 2006). He received many awards during his years of service, including a Lifetime Achievement Award from the American Civil Liberties Union of Tennessee, who called him a “beacon for equality.” He died of cancer on August 25, 2011. The Davidson County Criminal Courts now meet in the A. A. Birch Criminal Justice Building, dedicated in his honor in 2006.
It was not only attorneys who assisted the protestors in the Nashville civil rights movement. Newsman Robert Churchwell Sr. (1917-2009) graduated from Pearl High School (1940) before being drafted (1942) and assigned to a WWII engineering unit. Suffering terribly from misdiagnosed PTSD, he graduated from Fisk in three years by attending both Fisk and Tennessee A&I. His earliest publishing attempts were unsuccessful, but they eventually brought his talents to the attention of the Nashville Banner editor, a racial separatist who disdained African Americans but realized he needed to sell papers in the black community for economic reasons. When Churchwell reluctantly took the job writing “Negro news,” he became one of the first black journalists on any white Southern municipal newspaper. He had to carry his stories into the news office from home – he worked there for five years before he had a desk in the newsroom. He authored articles about Nashville school desegregation, interviewing both black and white educators, and he covered the 1960 sit-ins, but the Banner refused to publish stories about the protests. After Churchwell’s 1981 retirement, his pioneering efforts finally won appropriate recognition, including the establishment of Nashville’s Robert Churchwell Museum Magnet Elementary School (2010).
Some of this material has been adapted from the Greenwood Project.