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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
1957 Jan 10 The Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) is organized in Atlanta, its stated goal to coordinate and support non-violent direct action as a method of desegregating bus systems across the South. Martin Luther King Jr., 28, is chosen its first president.
1957 MarTennessee State University defeats Southeast Oklahoma at the NAIA Basketball Tournament, 92-73, to become the first black college to win a white-dominated national title.
1957 Spring Of the 517 black students eligible to attend Little Rock Central High School, 80 express an interest in doing so and go through a series of interviews with school officials. Of the 17 students who are selected, 8 decide to remain at the all-black Horace Mann High School, leaving a group at Central who will become known as the “Little Rock Nine.”
1957 May 17 On the third anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education, Bobby Cain graduates from Clinton High School in Clinton, Tennessee, becoming the first African-American graduate of a state-supported public integrated high school in the South.
1957 Tennis player Althea Gibson wins both singles and doubles titles at the U.S. Open, the Australian Open, and Wimbledon.
1957 Aug 27 During the summer, opponents of school integration have organized into groups, the most vocal being the Capital Citizens Council and the Mothers League of Central High School. On this date one of the mothers files a motion in Chancery Court asking for a temporary injunction against school integration. Pulaski County Chancellor Murray Reed grants the injunction “on the grounds that integration could lead to violence.” Three days later Federal District Judge Ronald Davies nullifies the injunction.
1957 Sep 2 On Labor Day, Arkansas Governor Orval Faubus calls out the Arkansas National Guard to protect the school against extremists. The next day, Judge Ronald Davies orders that integration begin on September 4. This will be the first important test of Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka.
1957 Sep 4 The nine enrolled black students attempt to enter Little Rock Central HighSchool but are turned away by National Guardsmen.
1957 Sep 9 On March 11, 1956, President Eisenhower, responding to the racial unrest that follows Brown V Board of Education and following the recommendations of President Truman’s 1947 Civil Rights Committee, urges Congress to pass the first civil rights legislation since Reconstruction. House Speaker Sam Rayburn and Senator Lyndon B. Johnson, both Texans, guide the Civil Rights Bill through Congress, despite the objections of many Southern politicians (most notably Strom Thurmond, whose 24-hour-18-minute filibuster still stands as the Senate record). Despite the uproar over its passage, the bill is much weaker than Eisenhower has hoped – it does little more than to expand the authority of the U.S. Justice Department to enforce civil rights and voters’ rights, and to add a new assistant attorney general to oversee the division of a new Justice Department division responsible for civil rights issues.
1957 Sep 20 Judge Davies rules that Gov. Faubus has used the National Guard to prevent the students from entering the school and not to protect them. The Guardsmen are removed, and the Little Rock Police Department takes responsibility for keeping the school peaceful.
1957 Sep 23 Nine African-American teenagers enter Little Rock Central High for the first time, out of sight of an angry crowd of 1000 protesters. In a short while they are removed for their own safety when the mob grows unruly. The following day the mayor asks the president for help.
1957 Sep 25 President Eisenhower sends 1000 members of the 101st Airborne Division to Little Rock and federalizes the Arkansas National Guard. The nine black students return to school with a military escort.
1958 Mar The Nashville Christian Leadership Conference (NCLC) holds its first workshop on non-violent tactics against segregation under the leadership of the Reverend Kelly Miller Smith. The workshops will continue into 1960.
1958 May 27Ernest Green becomes the first African American student to graduate from Little Rock Central High School. With police and Federal troops standing by, the graduation ceremony takes place in peace and dignity.
1959-1962 Throughout the 1950s very few African Americans have been registered to vote in Fayette and Haywood counties, Tennessee, and Democratic party leaders declare the primaries to be “whites only.” In 1959 John and Viola McFerren, Harpman Jameson, and other young black leaders form the Fayette County Civic and Welfare League, register black voters, and file a federal lawsuit to end restricted primaries. In response, the White Citizens Council publishes lists of black voters and their white supporters. Merchants and others refuse to sell them food, clothing, gasoline, insurance, or medical care. Banks and land owners evict scores of black share-croppers, hoping they will leave the area. However, farmers Shepherd Towles and Gertrude Beasley offer space on their land for a “tent city.” An unnamed white merchant provides the first 14 tents, and, when the local Red Cross chapter refuses to help, the AFL-CIO, UAW, SNCC, Southern Conference Education Fund, Society of Friends, and National Baptist Convention provide aid and support to the “Freedom Villages.” The Justice Department’s lawsuit to halt the evictions and other retaliation against voters and their sympathizers is finally successful in 1962.
1959 Nov James Lawson, a Vanderbilt University divinity student, and Kelly Miller Smith, the young minister of the First Colored Baptist Church on 8th Avenue North, continue the workshops to train Nashville high school and college students in the techniques of nonviolence and peaceful protest.
1959 Dec Lawson, Smith, and student leaders John Lewis, Diane Nash, Bernard Lafayette, Marion Barry, and others make early, though unsuccessful, attempts to desegregate the lunch counters at Harvey’s and Cain-Sloan department stores in Nashville.
1960 Feb 1 Four African-American college freshmen bring attention to the unequal treatment of the races when they take seats at a Woolworth’s lunch counter in Greensboro, North Carolina. More students arrive the next day, and news services begin to take interest in the story.
1960 Feb 13Nashville students begin their first full-scale sit-ins at downtown businesses. Convening in the Arcade on 5th Avenue shortly after noon, they move out to the Kress, Woolworth’s, and McClellan’s stores, where they make purchases and then take seats at the lunch counters. Two hours later the stores close their lunch counters, and the students leave without incident.
1960 Feb 19Thirty Chattanooga high school students (most from Howard High School) take seats at the lunch counters of three downtown variety stores. Their hand-written rules, circulated to all the participants, include “please be on best behavior,” “no loud talking,” “no profanity,” and “try to make small purchase.” They continue the sit-ins throughout the month of February, drawing more student participants each time.
1960 Feb 27 White students attack the Nashville lunch-counter demonstrators. Police arrest the black students, but others move in quickly to take their seats. The students are represented in court by Nashville city councilman and attorney Z. Alexander Looby with his associates Avon Nyanza Williams and Robert E. Lillard. By Mid-May lunch counters will be opened to customers of any race; by October Looby will have convinced a judge to dismiss the charges against 91 students for conspiracy to disrupt trade and commerce.
1960 Mar 3James Lawson, whom Martin Luther King has called “the leading strategist of non-violence in the world,” is expelled from Vanderbilt University for his efforts in organizing the Nashville sit-ins. (He will complete his degree program at Boston University.) The dean and faculty members of the Vanderbilt Divinity School resign in protest.
1960 Apr 17 The Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) is founded at a series of student meetings led by Ella Baker at Shaw University in Raleigh, North Carolina. Baker insists on a two-part organization – one part for direct action (sit-ins) and one part for voter registration. Marion Barry is the first chairman; other early members are Diane Nash, John Lewis, James Lawson, James Bevel, Charles McDew, Julian Bond, and Stokely Carmichael.
1960 Apr 19 After Z. Alexander Looby’s Nashville home is destroyed by a dynamite blast, 2,500 students and community members stage a silent march to City Hall, where Mayor Ben West meets them on the steps. Student leader Diane Nash asks him, “Do you feel it is wrong to discriminate against a person solely on the basis of their race or color?” West says yes, later explaining, “It was a moral question – one that a man had to answer, not a politician.”
1960 May 6 President Eisenhower introduced a second civil rights bill in late 1958, in reaction to violence against Southern schools and churches. Once again Southern politicians react against what they see as Federal interference in state business – 18 Southern Senators form a filibustering “team” and produce the longest filibuster in history: over 43 hours. Majority leader Lyndon Johnson holds the Senate in 24-hour session until the Civil Rights Bill of 1960 is passed. Eisenhower signs the bill into law on May 6, thus creating a Civil Rights Commission, establishing federal regulation of local voter registration polls, and providing penalties for anyone interfering with a citizen’s effort to vote or to register to vote.
1960 May 10 Six Nashville lunch counters begin serving black customers.
1960 Jul 31Elijah Muhammad, leader of the Nation of Islam, calls for the establishment of a separate state for blacks.
1960 Sep 7Wilma Rudolph from Clarksville, Tennessee, is the first American woman, black or white, to win three gold medals in the Olympics, winning the 100-meter dash, the 200-meter dash, and the 400-meter relay, in which she runs the anchor leg.
1960 Oct 12Thurgood Marshall, who will later become a Supreme Court justice himself, pleads the case of Boynton v. Virginia before the Court. The case involves a black interstate bus passenger who was arrested for refusing to leave a whites-only section of a bus station restaurant. Marshall claims such arrests violate the Interstate Commerce Act and the Equal Protection Clause of the U.S. Constitution.
1960 Dec 5 In Boynton v. Virginia the Supreme Court rules that restaurant facilities in bus terminals that primarily exist to serve interstate bus passengers cannot discriminate based on race according to the Interstate Commerce Act. The decision is a landmark event because it ties the future of the Civil Rights movement to the Federal Government.
1960 Dec 31 By the end of 1960, 70,000 people have participated in sit-ins, and 3,600 have been arrested.
Adapted from a timeline created by Kathy B. Lauder for the TN State Library and Archives, 2013.
Our city’s most dramatic ties to Tuskegee developed shortly after the US entered World War II. In fact, it was Nashvillians who actually built the airbase where the famous Tuskegee Airmen trained. When brothers Moses and Calvin McKissack, well-known local architects, were selected to design and build the Tuskegee Airbase in 1942, they received what was then the largest federal contract ever won by an African American firm. McKissack & McKissack, now headquartered in New York City and Washington, D.C., remains the oldest minority-owned architectural engineering company in the United States.
The Tuskegee Airmen, whose exploits have become more familiar through a couple of recent commercial films, were actually not well known during the war, despite their extraordinary skill and courage. They were the first African American aviators to serve in the U.S. military. The “Tuskegee Airmen” title also encompasses the instructors, navigators, mechanics, and ground crew who trained and supported the pilots. According to a National Park Service article, “These men were the crème of the crop, many of whom already had bachelor’s and master’s degrees when they first began flight training in July of 1941.” And a considerable number of those remarkable men – trainers, support staff, and aviators – had ties to Middle Tennessee.
The following local men graduated from the pilot training program on the dates listed:
2nd Lieutenant Howard L. Baugh (see story below): Single Engine Section, SE-42-J; 10 Nov 1942.
2nd Lieutenant William J. Faulkner (see story below): Single Engine Section, SE-43-D; 29 Apr 1943.
2nd Lieutenant Carroll N. Langston Jr. (see story below): Single Engine Section, SE-43-I; 1 Oct 1943.
2nd Lieutenant Thomas G. Patton: Single Engine Section, SE-44-B; 8 Feb 1944.
2nd Lieutenant Hannibal M. Cox (see story below): Single Engine Section, SE-44-D; 15 Apr 1944.
Flight Officer Robert A. Pillow: Single Engine Section, SE-44-E; 23 May 1944.
Flight Officer Robert J. Murdic: Single Engine Section, SE-44-F; 27 Jun 1944.
2nd Lieutenant Rutherford H. Adkins (see story below): Single Engine Section, SE-44-I-1; 16 Oct 1944.
Flight Officer Rutledge H. Fleming: Twin Engine Section, TE-45-A; 11 Mar 1945.
Those in the Single-Engine Cadet Pilot Class were trained to fly the Bell P-39 Airacobra, Curtiss P-40 Warhawk, Republic P-47 Thunderbolt, North American P-51 Mustang, and similar combat fighter aircraft. Those in the Twin-Engine Cadet Pilot Class were trained to fly the North American B-25 Mitchell. There was also a third cadet program, the Liaison Pilot Cadet Class, training liaison and service pilots.
After the war, Tennessee State University developed a new program called Aeronautical and Industrial Technology, which included an aviation education component and an Air Force Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC). Cecil Ryan, who was head of the department of aviation, and his colleague George Turman had been instructors in the Tuskegee Airmen’s cadet program. They would instruct generations of pilots as well as aircraft design and maintenance engineers. Many of Ryan’s students went on to become pilots on both military and commercial aircraft.
Simon Gaskill, a commercial pilot for Eastern Airlines during the 1970s and ‘80s, once wore his pilot’s uniform on a tour of the TSU campus. When he ran into Cecil Ryan, he introduced himself and was startled when Ryan began to cry. “I wanted to be an airline pilot, but wasn’t allowed,” Ryan explained. “Seeing you come in here with that uniform was just too much for me.”
Carroll Napier Langston Jr. (1917-1944), another of the renowned Tuskegee Airmen, was the great-grandson of John Mercer Langston and great-nephew of Nashvillians James C. and Nettie Langston Napier, widely respected community leaders. Raised in Nashville and Chicago, he graduated from Oberlin College and earned an LL.B. from the University of Michigan. In 1941 he entered law practice in Chicago but, shortly after the U.S. entered World War II, he signed up for flight school at the Tuskegee Army Air Field in Alabama. By 1943 he was part of the 301st Fighter Squadron (Red Tail Angels) and was subsequently assigned to the 332nd Fighter Group. In June 1944, during a reconnaissance mission off the Italian coast, Lt. Langston’s engine lost oil pressure and he had to bail out. Tragically, his parachute failed to open, and a witness saw him clinging to the side of the plane as it went down. His body washed up on the beach several days later and was brought later to Greenwood Cemetery, where he now rests amongst his family.
Captain William J. “Billie” Faulkner Jr. (1918-1944), a graduate of Pearl High School and Morehouse College, was the son of the Rev. and Mrs. William J. Faulkner Sr. His father was dean of the Fisk University Chapel. William Jr. enlisted August 17, 1942, graduating from the Tuskegee pilot program as a 2nd Lieutenant on April 29, 1943. An airman with the 301st Fighter Squadron, U.S. Army Air Corps, he is believed to be the first African American from Nashville to be commissioned in the Army Air Forces. In September 1944 he was awarded the first oak leaf cluster to the Air Medal for “meritorious achievement in aerial flight while participating in sustained operational activities against the enemy.” Barely two months later, November 7, 1944, with 56 combat missions to his credit, he was reported missing in action over Austria. Two days before Christmas his grieving parents finally received word that he had been killed on the day he was reported missing in November, “possibly because of mechanical failure of his P-51C.” (Other sources say he was shot down.) He was awarded the Air Medal with four oak leaf clusters. Captain Faulkner is buried in France in the Lorraine American Cemetery and Memorial, which contains the largest number of World War II American graves (10,489) in all of Europe.
Colonel Hannibal M. “Killer” Cox (1923-1988) graduated from flight training at Tuskegee in April 1944 and went on to serve as a combat pilot in three wars – World War II (where he flew 64 combat missions), the Korean War (more than 100 combat missions), and Vietnam. He earned a bachelor’s degree in aeronautics from Tennessee State University (TSU), a master’s in industrial relations and personnel management from the University of Chicago, and a Ph.D. in psychology from Western Colorado University. After Vietnam one of his command duties was to serve as a professor of aerospace science at TSU, his alma mater. When he retired from the U.S. Air Force in the 1960s (with an Air Medal, five oak leaf clusters, and the Distinguished Flying Cross), he became director of ground equipment for Eastern Air Lines. Later appointed director of Eastern’s equal opportunity and community relations programs, he was instrumental in breaking down racial bias in the airline industry.
Colonel Howard Lee Baugh (1920-2008) was born in Virginia; attended public schools in Virginia and Brooklyn, New York; graduated from Virginia State University; and married his college sweetheart. In March 1942 he entered the U.S. Army Air Corps and completed his pilot training at Tuskegee, Alabama, that November. Assigned to the 99th Fighter Squadron in Sicily, he flew 135 combat missions. As a pilot in the USAF, he registered 6,000 pilot hours, with a career record of 250 combat hours. Following his World War II service, Colonel Baugh, who had been trained by Cecil Ryan at the Tuskegee Institute, served for a period of time as Professor of Air Science at Tennessee State University. He retired from the United States Air Force as a Lieutenant Colonel in 1967. For his distinguished career as an aviator, Colonel Baugh was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross, the Air Medal with three oak leaf clusters, the Air Force Commendation Medal, and the Air Force Distinguished Unit Citation, and other medals. In 2004 he was awarded the French Legion of Honor.
Dr. Rutherford H. “Lubby” Adkins (1924-1998), born in Alexandria, Virginia, developed an interest in physics while studying at Virginia Union University. He transferred to Temple University but was soon drafted into the U.S. Army. He took flight training for single-engine fighter planes at the Tuskegee Flight School, graduating as a 2nd Lieutenant in 1944. A member of the 100th Fighter Squadron of the 332nd Fighter Group – the Tuskegee Airmen – he flew 14 combat missions over Europe. Returning home, he earned a B.S. (Virginia State, 1947), an M.S. (Howard University, 1949), and a Ph.D., the first ever granted to an African American by The Catholic University in Washington, D.C. (1955). At various times he served on the faculties of Virginia State University, Tennessee State University, the U.S. Naval Academy, Fisk University, Morehouse College, and the Georgia Institute of Technology. He was president of Knoxville College from 1976 to 1981, returning to Fisk in 1993 to become division chair of Natural Sciences & Mathematics, interim president in 1996, and president in 1997, only a year before his death.
“A good coach can change a game. A great coach can change a life.” John Wooden
WALTER STROTHER DAVIS (August 9, 1905 – October 17, 1979) was born in Canton, Mississippi. After receiving a B.S. from Tennessee A&I (now Tennessee State University), he earned his M.S. (1933) and Ph.D. (1941) from Cornell University. Before completing his doctorate, Davis was employed by TSU in 1933 as head football coach and professor of agriculture. Within ten years he had earned his Ph.D. and was elected the school’s second president, serving in that role for twenty-five years (1943-1968). Under his leadership, university enrollment grew from 1,000-6,000 students. During that same period the school gained university status (1951), constructed 24 new buildings, and established six new schools: Arts & Sciences, Education, Engineering, Agriculture, Home Economics, and a graduate school. In 1958 TSU achieved land-grant status and was also awarded accreditation by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools. Davis proved his commitment to athletic excellence by hiring superior football coaches like John Merritt and Joe Gilliam Sr., along with other great leaders. Davis retired in 1968 and was named to the TSU Hall of Fame in 1983.
Another notable achiever Walter S. Davis brought to Tennessee State University was legendary track coach ED TEMPLE, whose talents attracted dozens of stellar athletes to the school. Temple headed the TSU women’s track and field program for 44 years, during which time his Tigerbelles won 23 Olympic medals. Among the 40 Olympic athletes Temple trained were gold medalists Wilma Rudolph (1960 – a former polio patient who became the first American woman to win three gold medals in the same Olympics), Wyomia Tyus (1964 & 1968 – the first person, male or female, to retain the Olympic 100-meter title), and Ralph Boston (1960 – the first man to top 27 feet in the long jump). In addition to their international successes, Ed Temple’s athletes held over 30 national titles. The U.S. Olympic Committee called him “the most prolific women’s track and field coach in the history of the sport.”
JOHN AYERS MERRITT (January 26, 1926 – December 15, 1983) was a Kentucky native who moved in with an aunt in order to play football at Louisville’s Central High School. After graduation he enlisted in the U.S. Navy, but when he returned, he won a football scholarship to Kentucky State College. He graduated in 1950 and went on to graduate school at the University of Kentucky, earning his M.A. in 1952. Merritt spent ten years coaching football at Mississippi’s Jackson State University (1952-1962) before Walter S. Davis hired him to be head football coach at Tennessee State University. He moved to Nashville in 1963, bringing along his talented assistants, Joe Gilliam Sr. and Alvin Coleman. Merritt’s career included thirty straight winning seasons, four undefeated seasons, and an NCAA 1-AA playoff victory in 1982. By the time ill health led to his retirement at the end of the 1982-1983 season, he had amassed a cumulative coaching record of 233-67-11. During his long career he coached 23 future NFL players, including six who played on Super Bowl teams. He died less than a year after retiring and in 1994 was inducted posthumously into the College Football Hall of Fame. In 1995 Merritt received the American Football Coaches Association’s Amos Alonzo Stagg Award, presented annually to an “individual, group, or institution whose services have been outstanding in the advancement of the best interests of football.”
John Merritt’s able assistant, JOSEPH W. “COACH” GILLIAM SR. (March 26, 1927 – November 14, 2012) had been an All-American quarterback at West Virginia State University. After graduation he coached football and basketball at Oliver High School in Winchester, Kentucky (1952-1954), leading them to a state football championship in 1954 and winning the title of Kentucky High School Football Association Coach of the Year. The following year he joined John A. Merritt’s coaching staff at Jackson State in Mississippi, where the team won a national championship. Gilliam left Mississippi in 1957 to become head coach at Kentucky State, but, having compiled a fairly unimpressive record there, he soon followed Merritt to Tennessee State (1963) as defensive coordinator. During the next 20 years the Merritt-Gilliam combo led the Tigers to four undefeated seasons and seven national titles. Gilliam himself served as head coach at TSU from 1989-1992 and was named Ohio Valley Conference Coach of the Year in 1990. He was inducted into the Tennessee Sports Hall of Fame in 2007. His son, “Jefferson Street Joe” Gilliam (1950-2000) was the starting quarterback at Pearl High School during Nashville’s first season of integrated football. He developed into a football standout at Tennessee State University, was drafted by the Pittsburgh Steelers in 1972, and, after taking the field as starting quarterback in the first six games of the 1974 season, gained recognition as one of the first black quarterbacks ever to start an NFL game.
RONALD R. “Scat” LAWSON SR. (April 26, 1941 – February 6, 2002) was the son of James R. Lawson, Fisk University president from 1967 to 1975, and Lillian Arceneaux Lawson. Young Ronnie attended Father Ryan High School his freshman year (1956-57), but, because its athletic teams were not yet integrated, transferred to Pearl High School in 1957 in order to play basketball under Coach William Gupton. The Pearl Tigers won the Black National High School Championship Lawson’s junior and senior years. Offered basketball scholarships to several universities, Lawson chose UCLA in order to play for Coach John Wooden. The youngster set freshman scoring and rebounding records that stood for six years (until they were broken by freshman Lou Alcindor, better known as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar), and he was named Honorable Mention All-American his sophomore year. In 1962 he transferred to Fisk, earning his B.A in 1963 and his M.A. in 1966. Lawson was hired as head coach of Cameron High School in 1964, while its student body was still entirely African American. He led the school to state championships in 1970 and 1971, with a 61-1 two-season record. After Cameron closed in 1971 and its students were sent to McGavock High School in Donelson, Lawson served as head coach of the Fisk men’s basketball program. He was a 2004 selection of the TSSAA Hall of Fame.
JELANI KHALIB OVERTON (December 11, 1980 – November 15, 2008)first appeared in local sports pages (1994) as one of Joelton’s eighth-grade football “players to watch” By 1998 he had earned area-wide recognition as an All-Region Football offensive lineman. Graduating from Whites Creek High School (1999), he enrolled at Tennessee State University, where he played football, earned both bachelor’s and master’s degrees, and even taught a few courses himself. His first job working for Metro Schools was to teach physical education at Napier Elementary School. A short time later he began coaching football, first at Stratford High School and then at Hillwood, where he became a beloved member of the school community. Other Nashvillians got to know the generous and supportive young man through his part-time job at the Northwest YMCA. In March 2008 Jelani’s students and friends were horrified to learn that he had been diagnosed with cancer. The disease took him quickly: only 27 years old, he died eight months after his diagnosis. Hillwood High School, devastated by his loss, named its annual senior athletic retreat in his honor. But even more gratifying were the memorial tributes from his players, whose lives he had clearly touched very deeply: “You were the greatest coach, mentor, and friend I could ever ask for” . . . “I’m doing my best to make you proud” . . . “I thought about what you said and I didn’t drop out I stayd in school” . . . “Im gon keep you alive by doin the right thing.”
Although City Cemetery, Nashville’s first public burial ground (1822) accepted people of all races from the beginning, the rise of the “Jim Crow” South after the Civil War compelled African Americans to look elsewhere for a final resting place. In 1869 black businessman Nelson Walker and the Colored Benevolent Society bought land for Mt. Ararat Cemetery near the Elm Hill-Murfreesboro Pike intersection, directly behind today’s Purity Dairy plant. Walker (1825-1875), a barber at the Maxwell House, became an important figure in African American politics after the Civil War. Elected president of the first State Colored Men’s Convention (August 1865), he was active in the Masonic Order, the Sons of Relief, and the State Colored Emigration Board. Largely self-educated, he became a practicing attorney and later a Davidson County magistrate. An outspoken supporter of the public schools, Walker encouraged his seven children to become well educated – his daughter Virginia was a member of Fisk University’s first graduating class in 1875.
When Mt. Ararat burial plots went on sale in May 1869, church leaders urged their parishioners to purchase them. Mt. Ararat received considerable media attention in 1890 when Reverend Nelson Merry’s remains were reinterred there from City Cemetery, and again in 1892, after three heroic African American firemen lost their lives fighting a devastating fire in downtown Nashville. The day of their burial was declared a city-wide day of mourning, and the procession leading from their funeral ceremony at the Capitol to the cemetery was said to be over a mile long. Mt. Ararat (now Greenwood West) became part of the Greenwood Cemetery complex in 1982.
Another key figure in Nashville history was the Reverend Preston Taylor (1849-1931). Born into slavery, he served as a Union Army drummer boy when he was a young teenager. While still in his 20s he founded a Mt. Sterling, Kentucky, church, attracting the largest congregation in the state during his fifteen years there, while also working as a contractor to build several sections of the Big Sandy Railroad. After moving to Nashville, he preached at the Gay Street Christian church and also joined the Masons and the IOOF, holding state offices in both organizations.
As the 19th century ended, Preston Taylor committed himself to improving the social and economic condition of Nashville’s black community. Already well known as a local religious leader and businessman, he opened the city’s first African American mortuary, the Taylor Funeral Company, in 1888, the same year he and three others came together to purchase land for a “first class burial space . . . available at cost” for African American families. After his partners backed out of the project, Taylor alone funded the purchase of a 37-acre site on Elm Hill Pike and Spence Lane, near Buttermilk Ridge (so-called because of the scattering of dairy farms along the big S-curve on Lebanon Road east of Spence). Greenwood Cemetery, still in operation today, opened in 1888. Preston Taylor’s will deeded the cemetery to the Disciples of Christ religious organization, who continue to operate the facility (now merged with Mt. Ararat/ Greenwood West) as a non-profit enterprise. Preston Taylor is buried beneath a striking monument near the entrance to Greenwood. He was also involved in establishing the Lea Avenue Christian Church, the National Colored Christian Missionary Convention, the One Cent Bank (now Citizens Savings & Trust), and Tennessee State A&I Normal School (now Tennessee State University).
Jim Crow laws barred African Americans not only from cemeteries but also from many entertainment venues. However, in 1905 Preston Taylor responded to these restrictions by opening Greenwood Park north of the cemetery on the large unused portion of his original 37-acre land purchase. The park’s entrance stood just west of the intersection of Lebanon Road and Spence Lane. The first recreational park for Nashville’s black community, its attractions included a merry-go-round, a roller coaster, a shooting gallery, and a skating rink. Visitors could attend events at a baseball park, a bandstand, or a theatre, and if they were hungry, they could eat at a barbecue stand, a lunchroom, or a well-maintained picnic area. The area was spacious enough to include a Boy Scout camp, a racetrack, and a zoo, and it was home to the Colored State Fair, as well as other popular annual celebrations on Labor Day and July 4th. The Barbers’ Union, Masonic Lodges, and USCT veterans scheduled special events in the park. Taylor, who actually lived on the grounds, banned fighting, drinking, or cursing by Greenwood visitors and required them to dress appropriately. When white neighbors complained about Greenwood and its attendant congestion, only Ben Carr’s last-minute appeal to Governor Patterson rescued the park from ruinous legislation. In 1910 a suspicious fire destroyed Greenwood’s large grandstand, but no one was ever charged with the crime. Preston Taylor died in 1931, but the park survived until 1949, superintended by Taylor’s widow.
Benjamin J. Carr (1875-1935) was another remarkable Tennessean, whose concern for his fellow black citizens resulted in the creation of both a second park and a notable educational institution. Born into poverty, Carr grew up working on farms in Trousdale County, Tennessee. He carefully set aside most of his meager earnings (50¢ per day) to purchase his own farm. In time, the frugal young man was able to pay off his mortgage with income from his tobacco crop. Shortly before 1900 Carr came to Nashville, where he was elected porter for the state Supreme Court and became an unexpected friend and ally of Governor Malcolm Patterson (1907-1911), who sent Carr on a lecture tour throughout Middle Tennessee to educate and inspire black farmers. Carr headed the citizens’ organization that brought the Tennessee Agricultural & Industrial State Normal School (Tennessee A&I, known today as Tennessee State University) to Nashville, and he was the school’s first agriculture teacher. He was also the driving force behind the city’s purchase of 34 acres near the college for use as a municipal park. When Mayor Hilary Howse dedicated Nashville’s Hadley Park in 1912, it became the first public park for African Americans in the entire nation.
The name given to Hadley Park is still a matter of some dispute. When Major Eugene C. Lewis (chairman of the Nashville, Chattanooga, & St. Louis Railway and director-general of the 1897 Tennessee Centennial Exposition) named the park, many assumed the title was a tribute to John L. Hadley, a white slave owner whose home plantation became the site of Tennessee State University. However, Lewis may have intended instead to honor Dr. W. A. Hadley (1850-1901), a physician-educator with whom he had worked closely during the Centennial Exposition, and for whom the Hadley School was named. A graduate of Meharry Medical College, Dr. Hadley had taught briefly in Davidson County schools before opening his medical practice. In 1880 he was elected secretary of the newly formed State Medical Association, and in 1883 he was chosen as a delegate to the National Convention of Colored Men at Louisville. He founded the Independent Order of the Immaculates and served on the executive committee (with Major E. C. Lewis) of the 1897 Centennial. After practicing medicine for several years, Hadley returned to teaching. At the time of his death, he was principal of Carter Public School in Nashville.