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.
The 1896 Supreme Court, inPlessy v. Ferguson, upheld the constitutionality of social segregation, ruling that state laws which required the separation of the races did not imply the inferiority of either. Yet separate was not equal in Tennessee. A 1930 study of Nashville schools called attention to dilapidated buildings, unsanitary outhouses, and inadequate lighting. Twenty years later, some black students still had to walk half a mile for a drink of water.
On May 17, 1954, the Supreme Court reversed Plessy, which had been used by many states to justify public segregation. Brown v. Board of Education held that “separate educational facilities” were “inherently unequal” because segregation denied black students equal protection under the law, a violation of the Fourteenth Amendment. A year later, the high court issued its implementation order, directing district federal courts to bring about compliance with the Brown decision. This was to be accomplished “with all deliberate speed,” an oxymoron which suggested that lower courts could show flexibility.
Nashville’s Board of Education appointed a committee to consider its options. Matters would have lingered in committee forever except for the lawsuit filed by Alfred Z. Kelley, an East Nashville barber. Kelley could not see why his son Robert had to commute across town to Pearl High School when the family lived within walking distance of East High School. The simple answer was that East was all white, and the Kelleys were black.
Lawyer Z. Alexander Looby and his partner Avon Williams Jr. carried Kelley v. Board of Education into federal district court. In time, Judge William E. Miller found for the plaintiff and directed the school board to prepare a plan for desegregation and submit it to the court by January 1957.
The educators stressed “deliberate” rather than “speed” and proposed that one grade per year be integrated, beginning with the first grade that next fall. At the same time, their plan allowed parents of either race to transfer a child out of a school where the other race predominated. In their final act, the board redrew the bounds of school zones so that only about 115 black first-graders, out of 1,500 eligible, could enter all-white schools come September.
Despite its novel evasions, the school board had acceded to the Brown decision. Diehards were left with unpalatable choices: resistance in public protests or keeping their children out of school.
Some black parents, worried about segregationists’ threats, took advantage of the school board’s transfer privilege. In the end, the burden of bringing down Jim Crow in public education in Nashville fell on 19 boys and girls. Twelve of them and their parents arrived at six elementary schools on the morning of September 9, 1957. So did knots of jeering white adults and teenagers. Police escorted the youngsters safely inside, but the day passed uneasily.
A few minutes after midnight, a bomb demolished a wing of East Nashville’s Hattie Cotton School. The police cracked down on persons carrying weapons, and jailed an agitator, John Kaspar, who had come to town to promote resistance to school desegregation.
The handful of black youngsters who brought down the “walls of Jericho” adapted well, as did their white peers. Ironically, militants like Kaspar led the city to declare itself a peaceful, law-abiding community. Although support for the idea of racial equality was equivocal, the issue was now public order, for which there was universal support. The number of black students in formerly all-white schools grew from a few in 1957 to more than 700 by 1963. This was hardly a social revolution, but it did preface the gradual acceptance by Nashville parents, black and white, that the old days of separate and unequal schools were finished.
Four decades ago, during a time of sweeping social change throughout our nation, a determined group of Nashville students began a nonviolent revolution in this city that changed history. On February 13, 1960, after months of workshops centered on the methods of nonviolent protest, a group of African-American students from local universities sat down at a lunch counter and refused to move until they were served.
This was the start of the sit-in movement in Nashville, inaugurating what Martin Luther King, Jr., deemed the best-organized movement in the South. It was not an easy process: response to the group’s activities was sometimes violent. Nevertheless, the movement grew, as individuals and groups raised bail money or represented the students in court. One of those advocates was lawyer Z. Alexander Looby. In retaliation for Looby’s support of the protestors, his home was bombed on April 19, 1960. Later that day the students gathered for a spontaneous march to the courthouse to confront Nashville’s mayor. Diane Nash, spokesperson for the group, asked Mayor Ben West whether he thought it morally right for a restaurant to deny an individual a meal because of the color of his skin. Mayor West agreed the practice was wrong.
That moment sparked important changes in the city — within three weeks, Nashville lunch counters began serving black customers — but it was not the end of the student movement. Many went on to join the Freedom Riders and to work faithfully in voter registration efforts all over the South.
Years later David Halberstam described the experiences of those students in his book The Children. Nashvillian Bill King was so moved by the author’s description of the fortitude, persistence, and faith of the young protestors, he believed the events in Nashville and the work of “the children” should be memorialized.
In 2001 Mr. King and his wife Robin, friends of the Nashville Public Library, set up an endowment enabling the library to create a civil rights collection focusing on the Nashville sit-in movement. The collection includes print materials, an oral history project, an audio-visual library, microfilm research materials, and a collection of dissertations.
A library space was redesigned to intensify the focus of the collection. The new area opened on December 6, 2003, and is now a mainstay of the Nashville Public Library Special Collections Division: The Nashville Room. The setting includes a symbolic lunch counter and stools: glass “placemats” on the countertop list the ten rules sit-in participants were required to follow, and a timeline of national, state, and local civil rights events adorns the backsplash of the counter. Large photographs around the room depict highlights of the movement. A media room and a classroom/lecture space offer screens and touchpads for individual and group viewing. On a glass wall are the words of Martin Luther King, Jr.: “I come to Nashville not to bring inspiration, but to gain inspiration from the great movement that has taken place in this community.” Over the doorway is a quote by John Lewis, one of the 1961 students, later to become a U. S. Representative from Georgia: “If not us, then who; if not now, then when?”
At the dedication of the room, February 14-15, 2004, John Lewis, moved to tears by seeing his quotation over the doorway, stood in the civil rights room as the leader of the “Faith and Politics Tour,” which travels annually, with invited U.S. legislators, to significant civil rights locations. Lewis’s co-chair for this trip was Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist. The library’s Saturday civil rights workshops drew 800 people; 1300 came to hear the panel speak on Sunday. This powerful discussion, moderated by John Seigenthaler, featured Reverend C. T. Vivian, Reverend James Lawson, Diane Nash, Congressman John Lewis (Georgia), Reverend James Bevel, and Reverend Bernard Lafayette, speaking to the overflow crowd. Other program participants included Nashville Library Director Donna Nicely, Nashville Mayor Bill Purcell and Vice-Mayor Howard Gentry, U.S. Congressman Jim Cooper and Senator Bill Frist, and Tennessee Governor Phil Bredesen. The program concluded with the singing of “We Shall Overcome,” led by Guy and Candie Carawan, folk singers whose songs have long inspired the civil rights movement. No one wanted the program to end: the library, scheduled to close at 5:00, remained open until after 7:00.
The program and reception were funded in part by the First Baptist Church Capitol Hill, a gathering place for sixties protestors and a training site for nonviolent protest activity. Other supporters included The First Amendment Center and The William Winter Center for Racial Justice, with primary support for the event coming from Robin and Bill King.
Additional contributions included a photographic exhibit of the civil rights movement by Harold Lowe; a film provided by Nashville Public Television, from their production entitled Nashville Memories; and a film of the event made by Metro Channel 3, which continues to make it available. Nashville Public Television filmed segments of the program for their popular series, Tennessee Crossroads.
Today the civil rights room is an active place. Cumberland Valley Girl Scouts use its resources as they work on civil rights badges. Schools, churches, and civic groups come for tours; colleges and universities use the Lowe Photograph Collection. Staff members are working with Fisk University to prepare a traveling exhibit about the women of the civil rights movement. The Civil Rights Oral History Collection continues to grow as the words of participants are captured for future generations. Recently a correspondent from the Azerbaijani newspaperBaku Sun asked to copy the photograph of the silent march to the courthouse. The photograph will accompany theSun’s interview with USAID Country Coordinator William McKinney, who was a participant in the Nashville sit-ins. The seeds planted by Nashville’s nonviolent revolution continue to produce fruit.