[Civil Rights]

[Civil Rights Collection]
The materials exhibited in this room capture some of the drama of a time when thousands of African-American citizens in Nashville sparked a nonviolent challenge to racial segregation in the city and across the South.

A handful of courageous parents and their first-grade children led the way in 1957, desegregating five Nashville public schools under a court order in accord with the Supreme Court’s historic declaration that the segregation laws were no longer valid.

Then, beginning in February 1960, a group of students from the city’s four black colleges—American Baptist, Fisk, Meharry, and Tennessee A&I—set out to confront segregation at lunch counters, movie theaters, and other places of public accommodation.

Trained and counseled in the principles of nonviolent protest by Vanderbilt divinity student James Lawson and Reverend Kelly Miller Smith of First Baptist Church Capitol Hill, the students organized marches, held sit-ins at establishments where they had been denied service, and carried out an effective boycott of downtown stores. Sit-in leaders Diane Nash, C. T. Vivian, John Lewis, Bernard Lafayette, James Bevel and others went on to national prominence in the civil rights movement.

The circular table in the center of the room is symbolic of lunch counters that were popular gathering places in downtown Nashville in the days before fast-food chains became commonplace. On the counter surface is a list of “ten rules of conduct” carried by the protesters during the sit-in demonstrations. A timeline displays significant events both locally and nationally during the civil rights era.

The large photographs displayed in the room illuminate some of the most dramatic events in this period of Nashville history: parents leading their first-grade children past angry protesters on September 9, 1957, the day desegregation began; a bombing and other violent acts meant to intimidate those who were challenging segregation; a march to the courthouse, and a peaceful confrontation there between Mayor Ben West and African-American student leaders, with the mayor expressing his personal belief that “it is wrong and immoral to discriminate.” Soon thereafter, at a rally at Fisk University, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., declared:

“I came to Nashville not to bring inspiration,
but to gain inspiration from the great movement
that has taken place in this community.”

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