NASHVILLE, Tenn.— Civil rights leaders observing Saturday’s 50th anniversary of the sit-in movement that would integrate Nashville’s lunch counters said that group of college students went on to become civil rights leaders across the South.
“This nation owes a lot to Nashville and the students of Nashville,” Rip Patton, one of those student demonstrators, said during a Friday panel discussion. “They went all throughout the nation making people aware of the movement and what was going on.”
Fisk University student Diane Nash went on to help found the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. John Lewis, a student at American Baptist Theological Seminary, now American Baptist College, was another founding member, a principal speaker at the 1963 March on Washington and a leader of the Selma-to-Montgomery voting rights marches. He is now a Georgia congressman.
The Rev. James Lawson became a Methodist pastor in Memphis, where he led the sanitation workers’ strike that in 1968 brought the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. to town, where he was assassinated.
Lawson is now a distinguished professor at Vanderbilt University. In 1959, he was a divinity student there who began training other students at several of Nashville’s Black colleges in nonviolent civil disobedience.
After five or six months of training, the students began sit-ins at Nashville’s downtown lunch counters on Feb. 13, 1960. Over the next two months, the sit-ins continued and a boycott of downtown businesses began. Then early on April 19, a bomb damaged the home of a Black attorney who had supported the students. That day, a group of at least 3,000 people gathered for a silent march to the plaza near City Hall where they met Mayor Ben West.
In the ensuing dialogue, West admitted he thought segregation was morally wrong and the lunch counters should be desegregated. Negotiations with business owners followed over the next few weeks, and, on May 10, Nashville became the first major Southern city to begin the desegregation of its public facilities, historian Linda Wynn of the Tennessee Historical Commission said in an interview.
The success of Nashville’s highly organized movement was both a model and an inspiration to other cities, Wynn said.
“The story of Nashville’s impact, I’ve not seen anywhere in writing yet,” Lawson said Friday. But the Freedom Rides would have ended with the first group of beaten, demoralized riders who decided they could not go on, if it had not been for the Nashville students.
The Freedom Rides were bus trips designed to challenge segregation in areas of the deep South that were unwilling to accept a Supreme Court ruling that found the segregation of interstate travel facilities — such as bus station waiting areas, restrooms and restaurants — to be illegal.
The first bus was stopped in Alabama where the riders were badly beaten and voted not to continue.
“Because of our emphasis on nonviolence, we knew the Freedom Rides could not be stopped by the Klan and the white citizens movement,” Lawson said.
John Siegenthaler, founder of the First Amendment Center, which hosted the panel, and former reporter and editor at The Tennessean, was working for Robert Kennedy when Nash called to say Nashville students were organizing more Freedom Rides.
“I said, ‘Please don’t do this. You’re going to get somebody killed,’” Siegenthaler recalled. “And she said, ‘We signed our wills last night.’”