Over at The Washington Post, historians Ansley Quiros and Anthony Siracusa connect the recent removal of Justin Jones and Justin Pearson from the Tennessee legislature to the early civil rights movement in Nashville. Here is a taste of their piece:
…the backlash against the expulsions — Nashville and Memphis have already returned Jones and Pearson to office — also has a long historical lineage. In fact, while Montgomery, Atlanta and Mississippi tend to get more attention, Nashville was an early center of civil rights movement activism, and this history shows the potential power of the new movement coalescing today.
In the 1950s, Tennessee Gov. Frank Clement maintained a publicly moderate position on civil rights — even vetoing a racial segregation bill. This veneer of racial moderation was common for Tennessee politicians, especially in Nashville. In “The Nashville Way,” historian Ben Houston described it as “genuine sympathy for black advancement undergirded by deeply felt assumptions of black inferiority.”
Yet, while politicians eschewed some of the demagogic racist language common elsewhere in the South, Black Tennesseans were still required to use inferior public accommodations and attend poorly funded public schools in often dilapidated facilities. They also faced routine racial terror and violence. The Equal Justice Initiative has documented 236 racial terror lynchings between 1877 and 1950 in Tennessee, “including hangings of Black journalists, business leaders, and teachers.” Appeals to moderation and law and order coexisted with this violent white supremacist order.
In the late 1950s, activists launched an assault on this duality. The Rev. Kelly Miller Smith, a prominent Baptist minister and NAACP leader, founded the Nashville Christian Leadership Council which sought to spread “the ministry of reconciliation and love in a society of racial injustice.” In 1957, after a conversation with Martin Luther King Jr., the Rev. James M. Lawson Jr. arrived at Vanderbilt Divinity School to teach nonviolent direct action to student activists. Lawson was a pacifist who maintained a moral commitment to ending Jim Crow segregation, and he soon began organizing students from other nearby universities including Fisk University, Tennessee State, Meharry Medical College and American Baptist Theological Seminary. Lawson’s students included a young seminarian, John Lewis, as well as James Bevel, Diane Nash and other future civil rights leaders.
In early 1959, Lawson and his students embarked on a push to desegregate downtown Nashville. To spur this process, they conducted workshops that explained the benefits of nonviolent resistance for a movement that wanted to create a “more just” society: “You don’t want to blow up Nashville downtown, you simply want to open it up so that everybody has a chance to participate.”
But Lawson also taught that nonviolence was a claim on the students’ right to be, fully and freely, despite Jim Crow mandates to shrink, bend and bow. Participants in the workshops discussed “our future … our place in the society and how society looked at us as a people,” Angeline Butler recalled. “We studied Mahatma Gandhi, the life of Jesus Christ, and Thoreau. Pretty soon we applied their teachings of nonviolence and civil disobedience to the fundamental inequality of people in Nashville’s segregated society.”
On Feb. 13, 1960, the students held their first sit-ins at the “five and tens,” taking their seats at the counters and trying to concentrate on homework they had brought with them. As Nash remembered, they were “scared to death.” But the fear abated as other students from around the country began to join them. “We started feeling the power of the idea whose time had come,” Nash stated.
Something was stirring. As activist C.T. Vivian put it, the sit-ins may have begun elsewhere, but “the Movement began in Nashville.”
Read the entire piece here.
What happened to Jones and Pearson hit a little differently than the Black Lives Matter protests following the death of George Floyd in 2020. This had much more of an old school civil rights movement feel to it.
Leave a Reply
You must be logged in to post a comment.