Tuesday, March 2, 2010

The Nashville Sit-Ins (50th Anniversary)

Sunday the 28th of February A.D. 2010, was the closing day for the Winter Olympics in Vancouver, Canada. Even tho' I have little if any interest in ice hockey I was nevertheless aware that the USA hockey team was doing well, had beaten Canada in the first round and was about to play the same for the gold medal. All on top of it being the 30th anniversary of the historic victory over the Soviets in the Lake Placid Olympics! So, once Worship was done at Eastwood Christian Church (Disciples) and I was planning activities for the rest of the day, seeking out a TV to watch the hockey game was one option considered.

However, Sunday was also the final day of Black History Month. So once I had eaten dinner at the Green Hills Kroger while observing an NBA game between my San Antonio Spurs and visiting Phoenix (S.A. went on to win it, I discovered next day), I chose to forgo watching a televised game in favor of visiting a museum with a special exhibit. The Tennessee State Museum (in downtown Nashville in the TPAC Building) is commemorating the Fiftieth Anniversary of the Nashville Sit-Ins.

From my first residence in the State, I was vaguely aware of the sit-ins to integrate lunch counters in downtown stores. I was aware of a few of the leaders involved, such as Kelly Miller Smith (who has a residential tower named after him where I'd delivered many prescriptions for Bradley on the bank of the Cumberland River opposite MetroCenter) and defense attorney Z. Alexander Looby (whose home was bombed and who has a branch library named after him in MetroCenter).

The extensive and well-designed exhibit provides plenty of information to enrich the observer's understanding of the historic event and its centrality to the civil rights struggle of the 1960s.

To keep it brief, Kelly Miller Smith, James Lawson (a VU Divinity School student who got expelled for his involvement in the sit-ins) and Diane Nash led Nashvillians of African heritage in the organization of the Nashville Christian Leadership Conference (later the SCLC). They sparked a movement to open the downtown lunch counters to people regardless of race. Toward the end of 1959 and into 1960 they did extensive training in non-violent protest tactics. One of the first displays in the exhibit lists sort of a "ten commandments" for how to conduct oneself as a peaceful sit-in protester. Training was based on teachings of Christ, Gandhi and a young preacher already becoming famous: Martin Luther King, Jr. Training was held in First Baptist Church -- not the large "white" church on Broadway at Seventh Ave. but rather the "colored" church on Capitol Hill. Most participants were students at the historic Afro-American higher-ed campuses: Tennessee State University (then Tenn. A & I), Fisk University and Meharry Medical College. In February 1960 they started entering downtown stores and sitting down at the lunch counters. Tensions built to a climax on the 27th, which saw violence and arrests. BUT those arrested were the peaceful sitters and not the bigoted and violent whites who attacked them!

Many of the details I learned thru the exhibit impressed me. But two in particular leapt out. One is that Martin Luther King Jr. himself came to Nashville and addressed an audience at Fisk. He confessed that he had come not to teach but to LEARN from the demonstrators. The other salient factor is that the day after attorney Looby's house was bombed, a group of about 4000 silently marched from TSU past Meharry and Fisk to the public square and the steps of Metro Courthouse. There then-mayor Ben West met with the marchers. Diane Nash asked him point-blank if he believed the downtown counters should be desegregated. He replied in the affirmative and added that he "appealed to all citizens to end discrimination."

Next day the Tennessean ran the big headline: "Integrate Counters--Mayor". Store owners, who were being hurt financially by boycotting and the sit-ins (especially during the days before Resurrection Sunday which had lacked their usual rush to buy spring finery), readily complied.

The successful Nashville sit-ins served as model and inspiration for similar efforts to bring about desegregation, first thru'out the State of Tennessee and then in other States. Diane Nash and others involved in the sit-ins went to other localities to assist with other civil rights events and efforts, including voter registration and the famous Selma March.

This pivotal event that took place right here in Nashville is something I believe that residents of every race can be proud. Some details might make us hang our heads in shame -- the arrests of peaceful victims of violence and not their attackers, or the bombing of the Looby home -- but that the young people inspired by Christ, Gandhi and King succeeded in their effort is very praiseworthy. I'm so glad that the State Museum has this exhibit and will display it into April!

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