Nashvillians Who Stood behind the Sit-ins: C. The Quiet Allies

by Kathy B. Lauder.

We would be remiss if we neglected to mention some of the quiet heroes who provided support to the protests with their time, money, and encouragement. Among the most generous were two Nashville couples – Dr. Charles and Mary Celeste Richardson Walker, and Dr. McDonald and Jamye Coleman Williams.

Georgia native Charles Julian Walker (1912-1997) earned his M.D. from Meharry in 1943 and opened a medical office in Nashville four years later. So devoted was he to his practice, he once agreed to see a patient when he was hospitalized himself! Deeply committed to the civil rights movement, he worked tirelessly behind the scenes, pressuring local leaders to take immediate action after the bombings of Hattie Cotton School (1957) and the Looby home (1960). He and his wife also quietly posted bail for many of the students arrested during the sit-ins. Walker served briefly in the Tennessee House after being appointed to fill a vacancy in his district, and he was a Fisk University trustee during the 1970s, encouraging the university to become more accountable to the community. According to his longtime friend, Tennessee Supreme Court Chief Justice Adolpho A. Birch, he was “fierce” and relentless in urging politicians and businessmen to invest in struggling low-income communities and to expand and diversify the work force. An outspoken champion of prison reform, he was a tireless advocate for prisoners’ rights. Although Dr. Walker was known for his energy and optimism, the loss of his beloved wife Mary in 1994 sent him into a downward spiral from which he never fully recovered.

Nashville student protestors crammed into jail cells. (Photo courtesy of Civil Rights Movement Archive)

Mary Celeste Richardson Walker (1910-1994) demonstrated a lifelong concern for social justice. Her parents divorced when she was a toddler, and she grew up in the home of her grandparents, Fire Captain Reuben B. Richardson and his wife. She attended Nashville city schools and earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Fisk University. When Dr. C.J. Walker met her in early 1942, he was immediately smitten. The Meharry graduate promptly proposed, and the couple married, as Walker liked to say, “five weeks after I first laid eyes on her.” That fall Mary began a 30-year career teaching English at Pearl High School, where she earned a reputation for being tough but fair, showing particular concern for disadvantaged and at-risk students. She and her husband shared a strong commitment to supporting the young civil rights demonstrators in Nashville, providing generous financial and moral support to the movement. Shortly after Mary retired from teaching, Governor Lamar Alexander appointed her to the state parole board, where her even-handed approach to the situations they faced won the profound respect of both inmates and judicial authorities. A member of Church Women United, educational advisory boards, and other civic organizations, she was a trustee of Scarritt College, as well as a lifetime member of the NAACP.

A native of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, McDonald Williams (1917-2019) came to Nashville with his wife Jamye Coleman Williams in 1958, he as an English professor specializing in 19th century English literature, and she as chair of the Tennessee State University Communications Department. When TSU initiated its Honors Program in 1964, Mac Williams was appointed director, serving in that position until his retirement in 1988. Together the couple edited the A.M.E. Church Review and The Negro Speaks: The Rhetoric of Contemporary Black Leaders, and they provided valuable support to Nashville’s civil rights activities. The Williamses received many awards for their service, including the Otis L. Floyd Jr. Award from Saint Bernard Academy, the Joe Kraft Humanitarian Award from the Community Foundation of Middle Tennessee, and the Human Relations Award from the National Conference of Christians and Jews. In 1995 a room in the newly remodeled Northwest YMCA building was dedicated to Dr. Williams, a longtime board member. He died in Atlanta at age 101.

Jayme Coleman Williams with husband Mac (photo courtesy of The Community Foundation of Middle Tennessee)

The daughter of a Kentucky minister, Jayme Coleman (1918-2022) earned a B.A. with honors from Wilberforce University at age 19 and an M.A. from Fisk the following year. She taught English at Wilberforce and three other HBCUs before earning a doctorate in speech communications at Ohio State University. In 1959 she began teaching at Tennessee State University, and she was named department head in 1973. She and her husband, educator McDonald Williams, were valuable organizers and supporters of the Nashville sit-in movement, later playing an active role in the development of the Community Foundation of Middle Tennessee, where their efforts earned them the Joe Kraft Humanitarian Award of the CFMT in 2002. A lifelong member of the A.M.E. Church, Jamye Williams was a member of the board of the United Council of Churches, president of the 13th District Lay Organization, and editor of the AME Church Review, the oldest African American literary journal. A member of the NAACP Executive Committee, she received the organization’s Presidential Award in 1999. She lived to be 103 years old. 

You might enjoy these two short video clips of an interview with McDonald and Jamye Coleman Williams: A. and B.

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

Important books about the Civil Rights Movement in Nashville:

  • John Egerton: Speak Now Against the Day: The Generation Before the Civil Rights Movement in the South (winner of the Robert F. Kennedy Book Award)  
  • David Halberstam: The Children
  • John Lewis: Walking with the Wind
  • Bobby L. Lovett: The Civil Rights Movement in Tennessee

Tennessee Politics 2002: A Year of Historic Change

by Pat Nolan.

Gov. Phil Bredesen

The recently concluded 2002 elections and their aftermath certainly left a historic mark on our state. The winds of change blew strongly, and much of it involved Nashvillians. We have a new governor, Phil Bredesen, a former mayor of our city and the first big city mayor to hold the state’s highest office. We have a new U.S. Senator, Lamar Alexander, who is a former governor and who has lived most of his adult life in Nashville. Finally, Bill Frist, our senior Senator, and a Nashville native, has been elevated to Majority Leader of the Senate, a position that arguably makes him one of the most powerful persons in the country, if not the world!

Dr. William H. Frist

The bruising and prolonged fight over a state income tax and a wave of state legislative retirements were also major political developments that led to change in 2002. The summer and fall elections brought the largest class of new lawmakers ever to our incoming General Assembly. But the single biggest factor in all the political change in Tennessee in 2002 came from the decision of Fred Thompson not to seek re-election to the U.S. Senate. That resulted in a fruit basket turnover of those holding office on the federal, state, and local levels. In fact, there is an almost direct link from Thompson’s decision to the election this past fall of Howard Gentry by Metro Nashville voters as the city’s first popularly elected black Vice Mayor. That’s because it was Thompson’s decision that led Bob Clement to vacate his Nashville congressional post and run (unsuccessfully) for the Senate. That, in turn, led Vice Mayor Ronnie Steine to run for Congress. During the campaign, Steine was implicated in a shoplifting scandal, which led to his resignation and the election of Gentry.

Howard Gentry Jr.

Furthermore, because of the changes on the senatorial and gubernatorial levels, there were very historic and interesting changes in our congressional delegation in Washington. For the first time in our memory, three of the four congressional districts which encompass the Greater Nashville and Middle Tennessee area (the 4th, 5th, 6th and 7th Districts) have new people now holding those seats. Yet despite all that change, some things remain the same. There has not been an incumbent Tennessee congressman defeated for re-election since 1974. That’s almost 30 years and counting!

Sen. Lamar Alexander (r) with Pres. George W. Bush

One other historic development came out of the last election about which there has been little public comment. A review of the records indicates that Lamar Alexander is the first person in the history of Tennessee to be popularly elected both Governor and U.S. Senator. Now that doesn’t mean we haven’t had people serve as both Governor and Senator. It’s happened several times. But all those occurred before the popular election of U.S. Senators. Back before 1912 and an amendment to the U.S Constitution, it was the state legislature, not the voters, who selected our Senators. Former Governor Frank Clement tried to make it to the Senate, but he was defeated by Howard Baker back in 1966.

This is not the first time Alexander has made statewide electoral history. He was also the first governor elected to two four-year terms. That was made possible again by a constitutional change (this time the Tennessee constitution). Governor Ray Blanton was the first governor to have the option to run again, but he declined.

Tennessee will have no statewide elections for almost four years (except for the 2004 Presidential election). So after a very active period of change, the election trail will be much quieter for a while. But as any student of politics, especially Tennessee politics, knows, it won’t ever be quiet politically around here for long.  (2002)

Author Pat Nolan

Editor’s note: Nashvillians know author Pat Nolan from his years of insightful election-night comments on WTVF television, where he also hosted “Inside Politics” and “Capitol View.” A graduate of Father Ryan High School and Vanderbilt University (where he was elected to the Student Media Hall of Fame for his distinguished career), Nolan later became Senior Vice President of DVL Seigenthaler Public Relations. We were extremely grateful to him for sharing this article with us after the momentous election of 2002.