The Nashville sit-ins started some three months before the sit-ins at Greensboro. Tutored by James Lawson, the students who took part in the Nashville sit-ins were followers of Ghandi’s belief in the use of non-violence. Lawson was later to mentor the Southern Christian Leadership Council on non-violent protests.
The students cause was identical to the one that was to gain national fame in Greensboro – an end to segregation.
The Nashville sit-ins started on February 13th, 1960, and downtown department stores were targeted. African Americans could shop at these stores and spend their money – but they were refused service at the lunch counters.
The protest soon attracted the support of other students (black and white) and the numbers soon went into the hundreds. The organisers of the sit-in were concerned that not all those involved in the protest had been schooled in non-violent techniques. Therefore, two students, Bernard Layfayette and John Lewis produced a handout for all those involved with their ’10 Rules of Conduct’. These were the required standards for all those who were supporting the protest. The rules stated:
Strike back nor curse if abusedLaugh outHold conversations with a floor walkerLeave your seat until your leader has given you permission to do soBlock entrances to stores outside nor the aisles inside
Show yourself friendly and courteous at all times Sit straight: always face the counter Report all serious incidents to your leader Refer information seekers to your leader in a polite manner Remember the teachings of Jesus Christ, Mahatma Ghandi and Martin Luther King. Love and non-violence is the way.
Such rules were not needed for the first few sit-ins as they were orderly. The protesters went to a lunch counter, ordered food, were refused and left the premises. However, towards the end of February, the mood of the store managers had become more ugly and supporters of segregation gathered at the stores concerned, along with the demonstrators.
February 27th was a particularly violent day. Eighty one students were arrested by the police – but none of the pro-segregationists. The sit-in students were charged with ‘disorderly conduct’.
The events of that day did not put-off the demonstrators – if anything, it spurred them on. They also received more support from students who were appalled by their treatment. Such events attracted even more media attention and by April 1960, the leadership of the sit-ins decided to expand their movement so that they boycotted all downtown businesses in Nashville associated with segregation. The action was so successful that it is calculated that 98% of the African American population in Nashville took part in the boycott.
April 19th 1960 was a turning point in the history of the sit-ins. To start with, a bomb partly destroyed the home of a black lawyer – Alexander Looby – who had defended many of the students who had been arrested during the sit-ins. In protest, about 4,000 people marched to Nashville’s City Hall. Here, the leaders of the march met with the city’s mayor – Ben West. The mayor, in front of witnesses, agreed that segregation was immoral and unacceptable. Just a few weeks later, six lunch counters in Nashville changed their policy on segregation and desegregated their counters and started to serve anyone regardless of their colour. Whereas the bus boycott in Montgomery had been successful because of its economic clout, there had been no overt comment by anyone within the city’s authority about the immorality of segregation. For a mayor to do this, combined with the impact on a city’s local economy, was a major achievement for a state such as Tennessee.
The story of the Nashville sit-ins did not end with the desegregation of lunch counters. Towards the end of 1960, a number of the leaders of the movement helped to found the Student Non-violent Co-ordinating Committee (SNCC). Diane Nash became a full-time SNCC field worker while John Lewis was elected the leader of SNCC in 1962. Dr James Bevell is credited with developing the idea for a March on Washington
Several of the SNCC leaders, who had honed their leadership skills during the sit-ins, became involved in the Freedom Rides. The sit-in leaders were also involved in helping to organise the Selma to Montgomery march.
Most of those who led the sit-ins became major figures in the civil rights campaign. Diane Nash was appointed to a national committee by J F Kennedy that promoted the 1964 Civil Rights Act. John Lewis was elected to Congress in 1986 after two decades of being recognised as one of the civil rights movement’s major figures.
The Rev James Lawson – who taught about the importance of a non-violent campaign – was expelled from Vanderbilt University Divinity School for his part in the sit-ins – but has since been honoured by the university.