Nashville Student Movement
Nashville, Tennessee, the “Athens of the South,” was a racist as any southern city, and planning for sit-ins was underway there, even before sit-ins broke out in Greensboro, North Carolina on February 1, 1960. Rev. James Lawson had been holding nonviolent direct action workshops with Nashville students, and in the fall of 1959, they began testing segregation by sending integrated teams to downtown department stores. “We met weekly for much of September, October, November,” Rev. Lawson remembered. “We tried to give people a fairly good view of nonviolence, and we mixed that with role-playing of various kinds.” Diane Nash, one of the movement’s student leaders, explained, “In our nonviolent workshops, we had decided to be respectful of the opposition, and try to keep issues geared towards desegregation, not get sidetracked.”
Violent efforts would lead to Nashville becoming one of the first southern cities to desegregate its public facilities. And the Nashville movement also provided SNCC with some of its earliest leaders, among them John Lewis who later became SNCC chairman and Diane Nash a legendary nonviolent warrior.
Nashville was home to four Historically Black Colleges: American Baptist Theological Seminary, Fisk University, Meharry Medical College, and Tennessee Agricultural & Industrial. Similar to other campus SNCC affiliates, students at these HBCUs were leaders in challenging segregation and building the foundation to the southern freedom struggle. The events in Greensboro reinforced the determination of the already organized Nashville students, and after those sit-ins, about one-hundred students formed the Nashville Student Movement targeting segregated institutions such as Grants, Walgreens, Greyhound, and Trailways.
They quickly became targets of racist violence. On February 27th, John Lewis remembered, “A group of young white men came in and they started pulling and beating primarily the young women. They put lighted cigarettes down their backs, in their hair, and they were really beating people. In a short time police officials came in and placed all of us under arrest, and not a single member of the white group, the people that were opposing our sit-in, was arrested.” The students were charged with “Disorderly Conduct.” They refused to pay bail, electing to serve time in jail as a continuation of their protest. “We feel that if we pay these fines we would be contributing to, and supporting, the injustice and immoral practices that have been performed in the arrest and conviction of the defendants,” stated Diane Nash. “Jail-no-bail” was also adopted by other student protestors in the South who were getting arrested for their direct action efforts challenging segregation, though never widely.
When CORE halted their Freedom Rides due to violence the next year, Nashville students decided to continue the effort. They voted Diane Nash as their coordinator. She like most of the Nashville students believed that if violence stopped the rides “the impressions would have been given that whenever a movement starts, all that has to be done [to stop it] is that you attack it.” Few in SNCC were as committed to nonviolence as the Nashville leadership, and they influenced a number of SNCC direct action campaigns. By putting their bodies on the line to bring attention to the racist violence that existed in America, and by being among the first to leave school and work full-time for SNCC, the Nashville students pioneered a new commitment from young people that advanced Black struggle and social change.
Charles E. Cobb, Jr., On the Road to Freedom: A Guided Tour of the Civil Rights Trail (Chapel Hill, Algonquin Books, 2008), 313-323.
David Halberstam, The Children (New York, Random House 1998).
Interview with Diane Nash by Blackside, Inc., November 12, 1985, Eyes on the Prize, Henry Hampton Collection, Washington University.
Nashville Student Movement (1960-1964), Civil Rights Movement Veterans Website, Tougaloo College.