How the civil rights movement in Nashville took on Jim Crow and won

There is a long history of Black activism in Nashville, Tennessee, that activists today can learn strategic lessons from. These heroes demonstrated the ability to learn from prior waves of struggle for Black liberation to take bold action for civil rights, form coalitions and work together, plan small and large public actions to protest unjust racial laws, and work behind the scenes to push for civil rights legislation in Tennessee and throughout the South. The struggle continues today, in light of injustices like the ongoing drive to gentrify Black neighborhoods in Nashville and the Tennessee Republican Party’s racial gerrymandering of Davidson County, where Nashville is located, to weaken the Black vote.

From 1866 to 1955, most of the work of Black activists in the city revolved around securing the right to vote, creating schools for people recently freed from slavery, and establishing churches. Tennessee enacted 23 Jim Crow laws during this time. Nonetheless, freed men and women formed social networks and worked together to create institutions to further the interests of Black people. There are currently four HBCUs in Nashville, Tennessee, and they were all founded during this time: Fisk University, founded in 1866; Meharry Medical College, founded in 1876; Tennessee Agricultural and Industrial State Normal School (later named Tennessee State University), founded in 1912; and American Baptist College, founded in 1924.  

Also, scores of Black churches were built during this time throughout the city that would later serve as venues for planning actions in later civil rights efforts. One example of such places is Clark Memorial United Methodist Church, which is where Black civil rights activist James Lawson held workshops on nonviolent protests in 1958 and where Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. held the annual Southern Christian Leadership Conference meeting in 1961.

Three years after the Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court decision, public schools began to be desegregated in Nashville in 1957 following the lawsuit Kelley vs Board of Education of Nashville. This lawsuit was filed in 1955 after Robert W. Kelley was denied acceptance to East High School in Nashville because he was Black. His father got legal representation from the Black lawyers Z. Alexander Looby, Avon W. Williams, Jr. and Thurgood Marshall, and they filed the class-action lawsuit and won. Still, it was not until 1966 that all schools in the city were legally desegregated once and for all through a vote by Metro Council.

The Nashville Christian Leadership Council was founded in 1959 by Black Christian leaders in the city who desired to unite older civil rights leaders and younger student activists through strategic planning between the groups where the younger activists would focus on carrying out nonviolent protests. It was between 1959 and 1960 that Black students throughout Nashville began to wage nonviolent protests and sit-ins of downtown establishments. A few of the key student activists that led successful campaigns against racial injustice in Nashville during this time were Diane Nash, James Lawson, and John Lewis — who are all remembered today as giants of the civil rights movement at the national level. The historic Nashville sit-ins took place from Feb. 13 to May 10, 1960, and resulted in lunch counters being desegregated in the downtown area. By the end of 1960, most downtown establishments in general were desegregated due to the sit-ins and a Black economic boycott that strategically targeted those businesses.

Nash, Lawson, Lewis, and others continued their activism in 1961 by participating in the Freedom Rides. Student activists of all races came together that year from across the United States to ride interstate buses through Tennessee, South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana to protest segregated bus terminals. The effort was first organized by the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), and John Lewis was one of the first 13 Freedom Riders to undertake the ambitious mission. 

However, CORE stopped the Rides in May 1960 due to extreme violence that many of the riders encountered and their inability to secure a driver to continue the campaign. It was then that Diane Nash, a 23-year-old Fisk University student who had previously served as the student sit-in movement’s chairperson in 1960, stepped in and coordinated the Nashville Student Movement Ride to continue the campaign. She and other student activists rode interstate buses and faced arrest and beatings until the Interstate Commerce Commission issued laws prohibiting segregated interstate transit terminals in 1961.

From 1961 to 1964, Black Nashville activists expanded their campaigns for racial justice to include fair employment and the desegregation of grocery stores, hotels, movie theaters, recreational facilities and restaurants throughout the city. All of downtown Nashville was legally desegregated by 1964 with the passage of the Civil Rights Act.

The fight for racial equality continues to this day in Nashville. Many Black residents are still systematically subjected to inadequate housing, poor health care, lackluster education and generational poverty. Additionally, all Black Nashvillians have to contend with underrepresentation in local government, and public officials continue to demonstrate that they have no problem with destroying thriving Black sections of the city by encouraging gentrification in these areas and poor city planning. This usually results in Black people being pushed out of their homes and neighborhoods in search for more affordable places to live within and beyond Davidson County. We can use the examples of civil rights activists from the past to inform our future methods of fighting against racist oppression. 

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