Welcome to WeeklyWilson.com, where author/film critic Connie (Corcoran) Wilson avoids totally losing her marbles in semi-retirement by writing about film (see the Chicago Film Festival reviews and SXSW), politics and books----her own books and those of other people. You'll also find her diverging frequently to share humorous (or not-so-humorous) anecdotes and concerns. Try it! You'll like it!

Sit-ins, Nashville, Civil Rights, the ’60s and Me

Today is a good day to write this for my daughter, who lives in Nashville and attended college  (Belmont University) in Nashville. It may (or may not) enlighten her to an anniversary being hailed by USA Today in their Monday, February 1, 2010 issue, in a front page story entitled “How a Demand for Lunch Fueled a Push for Rights.” The story, written by Larry Copeland, references the 50-year anniversary of a sit-in by black students and their white friends at the businesses along Fifth Street in Nashville, Tennessee.

Although Nashville’s sit-in protesting racial discrimination at the city’s lunch counters like Woolworth’s (then a staple) was upstaged by an impromptu sit-in the day before, [on February 1, 1960], at North Carolina A&T College, by four black students (all freshman African American students at AT&T College)—Joseph McNeil, Ezell Blair, Jr., David Richmond and Franklin McCain—the Nashville protest movement involved many more students, both local residents and many who were urged, as I was, to get on buses and travel South to be part of the protests. Many of these Freedom Riders, as they were known (or trouble-makers, if you were a local in the Southern community being visited), were organized by SNCC (the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee).

SNCC was organized in Raleigh, North Carolina in 1960 to help coordinate sit-ins and freedom rides and marches. Most were unpaid volunteers, but some were paid $10 a week to help the organization. Initially, the organization was meant to be non-violent. In its later incarnations under Stokely Carmichael, when the Black Power salute came into being, etc., the organization’s leaders said, “I don’t know how much longer we can remain non-violent,” and, indeed, it did not stand fast to Martin Luther King’s original nonviolent protest principles and passed out of existence in the seventies. However, during the hey-day of the sixties, SNCC was instrumental in helping organize protest movements in the United States, both by raising funds and by recruiting sympathetic students from across the northern part of the United States, who traveled South to help win civil rights for the black residents.

One of the most influential, in fact, would be an English major from Chicago, Diane Nash, who emerged as a key spokeswoman and ultimately confronted Nashville’s Mayor, Ben West at the height of the city’s sit-ins of 1960 (.

Nashville, Tennessee in 1960 was still a segregated city in the South, although it prided itself on being “the Athens of the South,” with its model Parthenon in the park and what officials felt was an enlightened attitude. But the black students who could not be served at Woolworth’s, S.H. Kress, McClellan’s, Grant’s, Walgreen’s and Cain-Sloan along Fifth Street didn’t quite see it that way.

Today, with the benefit of looking back from the vantage-point of 50 years in the future, it is apparent that the Nashville protest for civil rights was far better organized than many of those being staged in 112 Southern cities by October of 1960 (as documented in Juan Williams’ book Eyes on the Prize: America’s Civil rights Years, 1954-1965).  Of the 112 sit-ins and other demonstrations staged, many were ineffectual. It is a tribute to the preparation and planning of leaders like Chicago’s Diane Nash that Nashville’s sit-ins and protest movement yielded fruit that today’s college students benefit from, even if they cannot remember and, sometimes, cannot believe that this sort of unrest occurred in their fair city.

 

While Joseph McNeil, one of the original sit-in demonstrators at the lunch counter at Woolworth’s in Greensboro, North Carolina, had simply “had enough” and did what he did with little preparation or forethought, simply because, “I didn’t want to see my children have to face the same problems.  We just felt that this certainly was a time to act. If not now, when? If not my generation, what generation?” others spent more time preparing and planning. McNeil is now 67 and a retired Air Force Reserve major general who lives in Hempstead, New York. He adds, “My parents grew up and carried the scars of racial segregation.”

Lest readers think that Nashville, with its reputation as the Athens of the South, was so much better than Greensboro, North Carolina, let me quote 82-year-old John Seigenthaler in the USA Today front page article (Feb. 1, 2010) who was then the weekend city editor of The Tennessean, Nashville’s leading newspaper. Said Seigenthaler, “It (Nashville) was as segregated by race as any city in South Africa during apartheid.” Seigenthaler went on to become the first editorial director of USA Today, after serving as editor and publisher of The Tennessean.

When 124 students who had been coached in non-violent reaction by groups such as SNCC, dressed in their Sunday best, marched quietly, 2 abreast, from a nearby church to Fifth Avenue in Nashville and entered Woolworth’s, S.H. Kress, and McClellan’s, stores that, today, we would describe as “dime stores,” they were told by a waitress, “We don’t serve niggers here.”

The students waited quietly while other shoppers stared.  The protesters sat for a few hours and then left. However, the students returned over and over again during the next 2 weeks and added a fourth store, Grant’s, and a fifth, Walgreen’s.  (None of these stores remain on Nashville’s Fifth Avenue, today, except Walgreen’s, which hasn’t had a lunch counter in decades, as that particular American cultural phenomenon has been supplanted by fast food places like McDonald’s and Burger King.)

Each subsequent sit-in grew larger, attracting more students to the cause, but each subsequent sit-in also attracted supportive, idealistic white youths of the era. Protesters were heckled, beat, and spat upon the protesters and all this has been documented on film. By February 27, 1960, Nashville had decided to crack down on the disruption(s) to the local businesses and 81 students had been arrested.

Seigenthaler remembers, “For the white community, there was shock, anger, overwhelmingly negative feelings. The business community adopted a very steel-backed approach, rigid and very negative.”

I remember that, in my own case, I only took part in demonstrations that were held on the campuses of the universities I was actually attending. My parents decreed that there would be no bus trips to Southern cities for this college co-ed. But the colleges I was attending during the years outlined in Juan Williams’ book (see above) were the University of California at Berkeley and the University of Iowa in Iowa City, Iowa. (If you think things were “all quiet on the western front at Berkeley,” you have not read many history books about “Berzerkley” in the sixties.)

I remember that all the bookstore windows were broken out during demonstrations, to the point that the bookstores on both campuses replaced their previously glass windows with a bricked-up substitute. I remember the (repeated) occupation of Sproul Hall (the administration building) on campus at Berkeley and many protest rallies and concerts by such luminaries as Pete Seeger and Bob Dylan and, in one memorable poetry reading, Alan Ginsberg.

Ginsberg, the much-acclaimed author of “Howl” and one of the Beat Poets (like Jack Kerouac of “On the Road”) was so high on something that the janitor had to be summoned to actually physically lift the man, (squatting cross-legged in yoga lotus position onstage with finger cymbals), and remove him from the stage (stage left, as they say). I remember Mario Savio, now deceased, who was constantly rallying the student demonstrators, and just as constantly being hauled off to jail. [Imagine my surprise on a return trip to Berkeley recently to discover a life-sized statue of this leader of the Free Speech movement and civil rights activist right on campus. (“The times, they are a’changin’,” for sure.)]

But back to Nashville, so that my daughter, born in 1987, may read some reminiscences of others more central to integrating the city she now calls home.

Sit-ins had been tried in more than 12 cities, beginning in Wichita, Kansas in 1958, but the one in Greensboro, North Carolina described above ignited the most passion and reignited Dr. Martin Luther King’s movement, which had flagged after the Rosa Parks bus incident in Birmingham, Alabama, faded from memory. Without the students leading the way, Dr. King’s movement might well have faltered, but the unbridled enthusiasm of youth—harnessed again in Barack Obama’s campaign in 2008—rescued a flagging Civil Rights movement back in the sixties.

 

By February, 1960, sit-ins had taken place in 31 cities. By March, 1960, sit-ins had taken place in 71 cities (USA Today article of Feb. 1, 2010, by Larry Copeland, p.2A). By October, 1960, sit-ins had occurred in 112 Southern cities. The movement was growing and, in Nashville, at least, students from all over the country and all over the world were feeding it.  Said Representative John Lewis, (D, Ga.) who was then 19 and among those in the Civil Rights movement in 1960, “Students would come to Fisk to watch films and plays, or come to the Fisk Chapel to listen to unbelievable music, but they could not eat together downtown in racially mixed groups.”

For 2 years prior to the Nashville movement of 1960, Lewis was among a group of students learning non-violent tactics from James Lawson, a graduate student at Vanderbilt University. (Again, at Iowa, the group was SNCC, Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee). This is where Diane Nash from Chicago, mentioned earlier, studied the movement and where Bernard LaFayette, who later became a college president, would take part. C.T. Vivian, who later became an Atlanta city councilman was there and Marion Barry, later the Mayor of Washington, D.C. whose antics in office earned him a less-than-stellar reputation for drug use and womanizing, decades afterwards.

All these disparate people came together and planned, for 2 years, to hold mock sit-ins and studied how NOT to respond if attacked or arrested. Test sit-ins were held in late 1959 at 2 Nashville department stores, Harvey’s and Cain-Sloan. All this was in preparation for “the real deal,” which rolled out on February 13, 1960.

Says LaFayette, today, “There was an ongoing debate between the students and their parents.  They (the parents) feared for our safety, because we were going up against a system that was not known to be very sympathetic or humane, particularly law enforcement in the South.”

I had grown up in the lily-white town of Independence, Iowa. I did not have…then or now…. one shred of prejudice towards any other ethnic group. It isn’t that I can claim any moral high ground. I just had had no bad experiences of any kind (nor good, for that matter) with the students referenced as “colored.” Basic human decency and logic would dictate that people are people, no matter what color or religion they are, and should be treated equally well. Isn’t it the Bible that says, “Do unto others as ye would have them do unto you?”

It didn’t take me long to decide where I would stand on this issue, but how active I could/would be in the movement was dictated by my conservative Midwestern parents who controlled the purse strings. However, when I was on campus where it was all happening (as at Berkeley and Iowa)…(finish that thought). My parents were completely clear that I was NOT to sign anything, NOT to get arrested, and NOT to get on a bus heading south.

However, as long as I didn’t sign anything (“Do NOT sign anything,” said my stern father.) nor get on a bus for parts unknown, like the hapless college students whose short lives and brutish murders are so compellingly portrayed in the 1988 Alan Parker film “Mississippi Burning” (Gene Hackman, Willem Dafoe), I could take part in protests on the campuses I was actually attending without repercussions that would cause trouble with the authorities (and, in that group, I include my conservative parents). I remember particularly vividly giving blood to be thrown on the steps of Old Capitol in protest, but the protest was an anti Vietnam War protest, not a Civil Rights protest.

 This period of time stretched from 1963 to 1968, later than the period (1960) being discussed in the USA Today story. Still, I remember that the beacon burned bright in those years of the sixties, especially as anti-war protests against the Vietnam War, fueled by our nation’s draft system, began to become part of the mix.

As for sit-ins, perhaps 100,000 participated in them, according to historian Clayborne Carson, and 3,000 were arrested in 1960, alone, so demands that you “not get arrested” were reality-based when delivered by a worried parent to an idealistic would-be participant.

 

The sit-ins in Nashville carried on in to April of 1960, costing local merchants money. Easter was approaching and the large black middle class in Nashville organized a “No New Clothes Easter.” “Jim Crow” laws in at least 11 Southern states prohibited inter-racial mingling between blacks and whites, but, in 1954, the Supreme Court had ordered the schools desegregated. Ordering it didn’t make it happen, however, and there have been books written about the integration of the South’s most revered black institutions (colleges, universities, public schools), including a famous Norman Rockwell painting depicting a small black girl walking into a previously all-white school.

Said a Nashville student who was part of the protest movement of 1960 (Mitchell) of the “No New Clothes Easter:” “People were very serious about this.  They didn’t shop.  Anyone who had new clothes that Easter stood out.” Naturally, this hurt local merchants and Mayor Ben West proposed a compromise whereby a 3-month trial period would allow blacks to be served in a separate area of the local restaurants (Remember “separate but equal?”). This angered the black students and it was rejected. The sit-ins continued.

On April 19th, the home of the students’ attorney, Z. Alexander Lobby, was bombed. Thousands of people, both black and white, marched in silence to City Hall later that day, where spokeswoman Diane Nash (the Chicago convert) addressed Mayor Ben West, saying, “Mayor, do you recommend that the lunch counters be desegregated?”

The Mayor—who had always been viewed as a moderate and who was a white man presiding over an integrated city council—hesitated briefly and then said, “Yes.” (This version comes from Seigenthaler, who was present.) Says historian Clayborne Carson, “The sit-ins were the real starting point of the protests of the 1960s.”

By May 10, 1960, six Fifth Avenue stores (Kress’, Woolworth’s, McClellan’s, Grant’s, Walgreen’s and Cain-Sloan’s) seated black customers at lunch counters for the first time. When Reverend Martin Luther-King came to Nashville mere days after the confrontation between Chicago’s Diane Nash and Mayor Ben West, he told a capacity crowd in the Fisk auditorium, “The Nashville sit-ins were the best organized and the most disciplined in the Southland.” (Parting the Waters by Pulitzer-prize winner Taylor Branch).

As a sometimes Chicagoan who participated in protests during the troubled decade of the sixties, it is difficult for me to explain to my 22-year-old daughter, who lives in the very city where much of this occurred, how it is conceivable that a white minority would or could attempt to keep down a black majority. One has only to look to apartheid in South Africa with the Dutch colonial settlers (and this year’s “Invictus” film by Clint Eastwood) to realize that the history I lived through and participated in (to a lesser extent than these pioneers, but to the extent that I was able to do so) really did occur.

As Seigenthaler put it, “It’s really tough to understand how a city could be so insensitive, and, in some ways, so dumb, but Nashville’s ability to resolve it within a relatively short period of time and put it behind them is worth considering.” Says Mitchell, “Nashville, today, is a city that’s very respected in race relations. It’s a diverse, international community.  The present generation is often shocked when we refer to the sit-ins. They see a very open and urban community, and they don’t believe that that happened here.”

As you drive down Fifth Avenue in Nashville, today, little remains to remind of the history that took place in these streets. There are no signs or memorials and, although the sign is still up at the old Kress store, it’s been converted into loft apartments.  Walgreen’s, the only store of those mentioned that remains, has no lunch counter, and has had no such amenity in decades.

Nashville residents, like my daughter, can sit together and eat lunch wherever they want with whomever they choose, today. But they owe that freedom to Freedom Riders (as they were known), youths like me, who often boarded buses and traveled South (at considerable risk) to join their oppressed fellowman, in the hope of assuring “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,” just as our Constitution has assured our citizens since the 1700s. It was justice and equality for all under the law, regardless of race, color or creed that the children of the sixties stood up for.  I hope today’s youth and tomorrow’s youth-yet-to-be-born remember this history 50 years from now.

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9 Comments

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  9. Thanks, Connie, for sharing these memories. I was right behind you, in 1961-63, at the University of Maryland, College Park. For a look at my recollections, see Birds on a Wire Blog, and click on the topic “Stories about 1960s Sit Ins,” listed in the right-hand column. I plan to add to that series later this week. If you don’t mind, I’d like to link to this piece on your blog.
    Keep up the good work!

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