In 1958, following the formation of the Nashville Christian Leadership Conference (NCLC) by the Reverend Kelly Miller Smith Sr. and others, African American leaders and students launched an attack on Jim Crow segregation. The NCLC utilized the concept of Christian nonviolence to stage the Nashville sit-in movement to combat de jure and de facto racial segregation. The Reverend James Lawson, a devoted adherent of the Gandhi philosophy of direct nonviolent protest, trained local residents in the techniques of the belief. Early in 1959 the NCLC began a movement to desegregate Nashville’s downtown lunch counters and illustrate the hypocrisy of the Jim Crow economic system. During November and December, NCLC leaders and college students made purchases in downtown stores and staged “test sit-ins” in unsuccessful attempts to desegregate the lunch counters.
On February 1, 1960, four North Carolina Agricultural and Technical College students captured America’s attention when they launched the Greensboro, North Carolina, sit-in. Twelve days later, Nashville’s African American students launched their first full-scale sit-ins. They convened at the Arcade on Fifth Avenue, North, at approximately 12:40 p.m. and entered Kress’s, Woolworth’s and McClellan’s. They made small purchases and then occupied lunch counter seats. By 2:30 p.m. all three retail stores had closed their lunch counters, and the students departed without incident. In response to white harassment at Walgreen’s, students formulated ten rules of conduct for demonstrators. These became the code of behavior for later protest movements in the South. Throughout the spring, Nashville students conducted numerous sit-ins. They suffered verbal and physical abuse, arrests, fines, and incarceration, but held steadfastly to the concept of Christian nonviolence.
African American pressure to desegregate and white resistance to integration increased throughout the early spring. Shortly before Easter, the majority of Nashville African Americans used their “dollar vote” and simply stopped making purchases in the downtown stores, creating an estimated 20 percent loss in business revenues. As racial tension escalated, segregationists lashed out at civil rights activists. On April 19, an early morning bombing damaged the home of attorney Z. Alexander Looby, defense counsel for the students, a city councilman, and a leading figure in desegregation movements throughout Tennessee. The Loobys escaped with only minor injuries. In response, thousands of black and some white Americans marched to Nashville’s City Hall. Mayor Ben West met the protesters and conceded to Diane Nash of Fisk University that he felt segregation was wrong and that lunch counters should be desegregated. On May 10, 1960, Nashville became the first major city to begin desegregating its public facilities. While the Greensboro sit-in was spontaneous, the Nashville movement had been planned over several months and drew students from the city’s four predominately black colleges as well as community residents. According to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., the Nashville movement was one of the best organized and most disciplined movements in the South. In November sit-ins resumed, as racist practices still continued in most eating establishments, and institutionalized racism remained intact.
The Nashville sit-in movement served as more than a model for future demonstrations against segregated accommodations, unfair employment practices, and other examples of institutionalized segregation. Its example of nonviolent protest emboldened and mobilized others across the country, and many of the student participants became leaders in the struggle for civil rights.
Taylor Branch, Parting of the Waters: America in the King Years, 1954-1963 (1988); Linda T. Wynn, “The Dawning of a New Day: The Nashville Sit-ins, February 13-May 10, 1960,” Tennessee Historical Quarterly 50 (1993): 42-54