Civil Rights Timeline, 1624 – 2012

Part Three: 1957-1960.

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 Mar        Tennessee 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.

Young Elizabeth Eckford attempts to enter Little Rock Central High School through a menacing crowd, September 4, 1957.

1957 Sep 4      The nine enrolled black students attempt to enter Little Rock Central High School 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 27   Ernest 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.

Student activist Diane Nash with the Rev. Kelly Miller Smith

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 13    Nashville 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 19    Thirty 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 3     James 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.

James Lawson with Martin Luther King

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 31     Elijah Muhammad, leader of the Nation of Islam, calls for the establishment of a separate state for blacks.

1960 Sep 7      Wilma 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.

Thurgood Marshall, first African American to serve on the U.S. Supreme Court (1957 photo)

1960 Oct 12    Thurgood 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.

Nashville Coaches Who Made a Difference

by Kathy B. Lauder.

“A good coach can change a game. A great coach can change a life.” John Wooden

Dr. Walter Strother Davis

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.

Coach Ed Temple

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.”

Coach John A. Merritt

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.”

Coach Joseph W. Gilliam Sr.

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.

“Jefferson Street Joe” Gilliam

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. 

Ronald R. Lawson Sr.

 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.”    

Coach Jelani Khalib Overton

           Adapted from essays in the Greenwood Project.

Outstanding 20th Century Tennesseans

List compiled by Dr. Edwin S. Gleaves.

In March of 2006 Dr. Edwin Gleaves, retired State Librarian and Archivist of Tennessee, sought from seven history enthusiasts their choices of twenty-five notable 20th-century Tennesseans every student of Tennessee history should know. Dr. Gleaves compiled the individual lists into a master roster of 31 names for presentation to the Tennessee history class that he was currently teaching at Lipscomb University. We were extremely grateful that he agreed to share this compilation with the NHN.

One of the seven participants was Walter T. Durham, State Historian of Tennessee from 2002-2013 and author of 24 books of local history. Mr. Durham generously agreed to allow us to publish his list separately.

The busy schedules of the list-makers no doubt forced them to make quicker decisions than they might have preferred, and, of course, limiting the size of the list means that many worthy candidates had to be omitted. Nevertheless, the following entries are extremely important, not least because they demonstrate the great diversity of accomplishment in 20th-century Tennessee.

The Compiled List

Category 1: Persons Who Received Seven Nominations

Hull, Cordell (1871-1955: lawyer; judge; U.S. Representative; U.S. Senator; U.S. Secretary of State; recipient of Nobel Peace Prize)

York, Alvin C. (1887-1964: World War I Army hero; supporter of education in the Upper Cumberland region)

Category 2: Persons Who Received Six Nominations

Crump, E. H. “Boss” (1874-1954: Mayor of Memphis; controversial but influential political figure statewide)

Gore, Albert Jr. (b. 1948: U.S. Representative; U.S. Senator; Vice President; presidential candidate; environmentalist; author; teacher)

Haley, Alex (1921-1992: novelist; biographer; author of Roots; largely responsible for popularizing genealogy in this country)

Kefauver, Estes (1903-1963: U.S. Senator; vice-presidential nominee; fought organized crime and segregation)

Category 3: Persons Who Received Five Nominations

Gore, Albert, Sr. (1907-1998: progressive U.S. Congressman and Senator; fought for civil rights legislation; known as the “Father of Medicare”)

Rudolph, Wilma (1940-1994: Olympic medalist; teacher and coach)

Category 4: Persons Who Received Four Nominations

Agee, James (1909-1955: writer and critic; author of Let Us Now Praise Famous Men and A Death in the Family)

Dudley, Ann Dallas (1876-1955: state and national leader in the women’s suffrage movement)

Horton, Myles F. (1905-1990: educator; founder and director of the Highlander Folk School and the Highlander Research and Education Center)

Presley, Elvis (1935-1977: singer, entertainer; “The King”)

Ransom, John Crowe (1888-1974: poet, professor; critic; leader of the Fugitives literary movement)

Category 5: Persons Who Received Three Nominations

Acuff, Roy (1903-1992: known as the “King of County Music” because of his long association with the Grand Ole Opry)

Cannon, Sarah Ophelia (1914-1996: Grand Ole Opry’s “Minnie Pearl”; supported and funded cancer research and treatment)

Clement, Frank G. (1920-1969: Governor, 1953-59 and 1963-67; noted speaker)

Giovanni, Nikki (b. 1943: poet; educator; activist)

Handy, W. C. (1873-1958: composer and musician; “Father of the Blues”)

Parton, Dolly (b. 1946: singer, entertainer; founder of the Imagination Library)

Smith, Bessie (1894-1937: nationally prominent blues singer)

Category 6: Persons Who Received Two Nominations

Alexander, Lamar (b. 1940: Governor, 1979-86; President, University of Tennessee; U.S. Secretary of Education; U.S. Senator)

Atkins, Chet (1924-2001: music executive; guitarist par excellence)

Baker, Howard Jr. (1925-2014: U. S. Senator, minority and majority leader; ambassador to Japan; presidential chief of staff)

Foote, Shelby (1916-2005: novelist and historian; best known for his trilogy, The Civil War)

Frist, Thomas F. Sr. (1910-1998: cardiologist and businessman; co-founder of Hospital Corporation of America)

Ingram, Martha (b. 1935: businesswoman; philanthropist; author; patron of the arts)

Lea, Luke (1879-1945: businessman; editor; military officer; financier)

McKellar, Kenneth D. (1869-1957; U.S. Senator; New Deal advocate; active supporter of the Tennessee Valley Authority)

Scopes, John T. (1900-1970: school teacher; focus of trial about teaching evolution in a Tennessee public school)

Taylor, Peter (1917-1994: novelist and short story writer; winner of Pulitzer Prize for A Summons to Memphis)

Warren, Robert Penn (1905-1989: poet; novelist; Pulitzer Prize winner; member of Fugitives group)

Walter Durham’s List

Cordell Hull (secretary of state/Nobel Peace Prize)
Al Gore, Jr. (senator/vice president)
Estes Kefauver (senator/vice-presidential candidate)
Albert Gore, Sr. (senator)
Howard Baker (senator/ambassador)
Lamar Alexander (governor/secretary of education/senator)
E. H. Crump (political boss)
Tom Frist (CEO of HCA)
Alexander Heard (education)
Ralph “Peck” Owen (Equitable/American Express)
Andrew D. Holt (TEA/NEA/UT president)
Fred Smith (founder & CEO of FedEx)
Sergeant Alvin York (war hero)
Jim Sasser (senator/ambassador)
Martha Ingram (business/performing arts)
Elvis Presley (music)
Grace Moore (music/opera)
Wilma Rudolph (Olympic athlete)
Anne Dallas Dudley (women’s voting rights amendment)
Alex Haley (Roots)
James Agee (author)
Ida B. Wells-Barnett (anti-lynching activist)
Myles Horton (educator/political activist)
Dolly Parton (music/philanthropy)