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Black History Special: Students Mentored By Civil Rights Veterans Changed American History

I have nothing but praise to offer Ezell Blair Jr. (Jibreel Khazan), David Richmond, Franklin McCain and Joseph McNeil, the four North Carolina A & T State University students who conducted the Feb. 1, 1960 sit-in at the counter of the Woolworth’s in Greensboro, N.C.  These four men deserve our national thanks for their roles in igniting a generation of young people to take part in one of the great political campaigns in American history.

Which is why when I think of the sit-ins these days, I linger on the roles of two older people whose names don’t make the headlines. James Lawson and Ella Baker found brilliant ways to channel and guide the energy of the young student protesters who joined the sit-ins in cities across the South. Lawson and Baker (among many others) helped ensure that the sit-ins gained an enduring power that was needed in the years ahead to mount a frontal challenge to entrenched Southern racism.

Lawson was the spiritual leader of the Nashville Student Movement, the group of young people that was in the words of Dr. Martin Luther King, “the best organized and the most disciplined in the Southland.” Their number included Diane Nash, John Lewis, James Bevel, Bernard LaFayette and Marion Barry.

Starting in the fall of 1958, Lawson held weekly workshops on nonviolent resistance at Clark Memorial United Methodist Church in Nashville. Lawson, about 30 years old at the time, was a student at Vanderbilt Divinity School. (He was later expelled from Vanderbilt for his role in leading demonstrations.) A pacifist, Lawson had served time in federal prison for refusing to register for the draft during the Korean War. He lived several years in India, where he studied the tactics of Mohandas Gandhi.

In his memoir, Congressman John Lewis, a former Nashville student activist, recounts Lawson’s detailed teachings on various aspects of Gandhi’s thought. Lawson embraced nonviolence as a way of life.  In the workshops, Lawson staged practice confrontations. The young people learned how to curl up to protect their internal organs if they were being assaulted. They also practiced maintaining eye contact with their assailants in the midst of an attack as a way of “disarming” the attacker.

On Nov. 28, 1959, about a month before the Greensboro sit-ins grabbed national headlines, the Nashville group conducted a practice sit-in at a local department store. The young people entered Harvey’s department store and sat down at the counter. The students were rebuffed by a waitress and they asked to speak to the manager, who came and told them that store policy was to not serve colored people at the counter. They thanked him and left the store. The Nashville group conducted a second “test” sit-in in December 1959. When the Greensboro sit-ins occurred, the Nashville Student Movement was, in a sense, beaten to the punch, though what the four A&T students did was not all that different from what the Nashville students had done twice during their “test” sit-ins.

Long after the sit-ins had died down, the Nashville group played a key role in the 1961 Freedom Rides. And they were core members of the group that emerged out of the sit-ins, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC).

SNCC, pronounced “snick,” emerged out of an April 1960 conference in Raleigh, N.C., organized by longtime NAACP field organizer Ella Baker. Baker at the time was the interim executive director of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). The goal of the conference was to harness the energy of the student sit-ins that had resulted in the arrest of thousands of young people.  Baker, in the words of her biographer Barbara Ransby, was a “radical democrat.” She was a critic of SCLC’s male ministers and what she viewed as their emphasis on a top-down leadership based on charisma.  She was 56 when the sit-ins broke out and despite being on SCLC’s payroll, she encouraged the students to form a group that was independent of all of the mainstream civil rights groups.

Baker delivered a speech at the conference titled, “More Than a Hamburger,” in which she told the students that lunch-counter integration was one thing. Challenging voter disenfranchisement and workplace discrimination would require more work. (Lawson also spoke at the founding conference and he also encouraged the young people to chart their own course.)

It is no surprise that SNCC became the most decentralized, democratic, and independent of the major civil rights groups.  In its heyday, from 1961 to 1964, the young SNCC activists, some who quit college to join the movement, did what no civil rights group was willing to do. It set up quarters in Mississippi and mounted a grassroots campaign against the most brutal and entrenched regime of White supremacy in the nation.  SNCC’s Mississippi work remains one of the most underappreciated efforts in American social history.

Lawson grounded the Nashville students in a deep well of nonviolence and passive resistance that was to serve them well through many difficult years ahead. Baker helped set the young people on a path free from the control of older folks. It’s doubtful that the student movement would have survived without them.

Robert Anthony Watts is associate teaching professor of English at Drexel University in Philadelphia. He is writing a novel about the civil rights movement in Mississippi.

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