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.
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.
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: https://www.loc.gov/exhibits/civil-rights-act/multimedia/nashville-city-hall-confrontation.html
Some of this material has been adapted from the Greenwood Project.