Ben West, mayor of Nashville (1951-63), was born in Columbia, Tennessee, in 1911. West came to Nashville as a boy and grew up with his parents in a working-class neighborhood in the Woodbine district. He worked his way through school and attended Cumberland Law School and Vanderbilt University. In 1934 he began work as an assistant district attorney in Nashville. West ran unsuccessfully for mayor of Nashville in 1943 and won election as vice-mayor in 1946 and then as state senator in 1949.
In the Senate West introduced legislation that brought back single-member district elections, replacing the citywide election of Nashville’s city council. This represented a major breakthrough for the rebirth of black voting power in city politics because it allowed minorities whose votes were concentrated in a few wards to carry elections they could not hope to win in citywide contests. This reform was also the key to West’s political future, as he would depend heavily on the reemerging black voter whose political power, with the repeal of the poll tax and other voting restrictions and the movement of white voters to the suburbs, was increasing.
In 1951 West won election as mayor of Nashville, along with the first two African American councilmen in forty years. As mayor of Nashville West supported other voting reforms, particularly a campaign to reapportion rural and urban voting districts. West championed the cause of reapportionment in the landmark case Baker v. Carr, by which the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in favor of the “one man, one vote” principle. This ruling forced reapportionment of state legislatures and shifted power to woefully underrepresented cities. While mayor of Nashville, West presided over the Capitol Hill Redevelopment Project, which replaced a squalid slum and vice district surrounding the state capitol building with a green belt, parking lots, and new state office buildings. West’s strong alliance with Nashville’s black community also helped improve race relations and prepare the city for the challenge of the Civil Rights movement. At one critical moment during the sit-in demonstrations of 1960 protest marchers challenged West to take a stand against segregation. He did so, and the Nashville business community quickly agreed to desegregate department store lunch counters, making Nashville the first southern city to desegregate public facilities. With his base in the old inner city, West opposed the consolidation of city and county government in 1958 and 1963. He lost reelection as mayor of the new Metropolitan government in his 1963 contest with Beverly Briley. West retired to private life and died in 1974.
Don H. Doyle, Nashville Since the 1920s (1985); Linda T. Wynn, “The Dawning of a New Day: The Nashville Sit-Ins, February 13-May 10, 1960,” Tennessee Historical Quarterly 50 (1991): 42-54