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Nashville's Role In Civil Rights

Updated: Oct 13, 2023

The Good, The Bad and The Ugly

In 1963, the metro charter in Nashville was enacted after an emotional and long-fought battle. At the same time, another movement was happening - the effects of which stretched far beyond the borders of the new, greater Nashville area. However strong the push for government consolidation, it couldn’t match the commitment of a group of Civil Rights activists, taught and led by James Lawson, Vanderbilt University theology student and Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) organizer.

Even though Nashville is in the heart of the South, a quadrant of the country still marred by a history of intolerance and violence toward minorities, it has traditionally adopted a more progressive stance than most surrounding major cities. As a city highly reliant upon slavery before the Civil War, Nashville was now home to a free and influential African American population. As time progressed, the white and black communities of Nashville continued to grow simultaneously but not in concert. From Nashville’s African American population, there emerged elite, middle and working classes, necessitating the creation of historically black universities, churches, and businesses. As this community grew, so did a unique culture, attitude and pride surrounding what had been built from the ashes of the disgraceful era of slavery.

Because of their rich cultural history, black residents in Nashville quickly got on board with the sit-in movement. On February 13, 1960, 124 black Nashville students entered several downtown business and made small purchases - which was legal--and proceeded to sit down at the lunch counters and asked to be served - which was not.

Though the response from the store employees was less than inviting, no dramatically violent measures were immediately taken. The students, under the umbrella of the SCLC, grew in number over the next couple of weeks and became impossible to ignore. As a result, the police arrested 81 students by February 27.

In April of 1960, the bombing of the home of prominent Nashville attorney Z. Alexander Looby - himself a black immigrant from the West Indies Island of Antigua - began a groundswell of support from the committed civil rights activists. The very day of the bombing, 4,000 protesters marched to Nashville’s City Hall.

Among the protesters were C.T. Vivian and Diane Nash, who asked Mayor Ben West, if he thought segregating lunch counters was morally right. In a corner, West replied that it was not. Legislation followed shortly after. The transition was ugly, but the relatively quick move to integrate showed that there were levelheaded minds at work in Nashville during an era dominated by backward thinking. Yet a number of businesses resisted desegregation, and protesters occasionally found violent opposition to their peaceful attempts at integration.

The Tennessean was one of two prominent Nashville newspapers of the time. John Seigenthaler, who had earned recognition in Nashville during the 50’s as a police beat reporter for the Tennessean, described the paper’s stance as “far to the left of the Banner but still a very moderate position,” Seigenthaler left The Tennessean in 1960 to work as an administrative assistant to Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy. He left because “it was a different paper, and it didn’t stand for the policy that it had.”

Seigenthaler returned as editor in 1962 and found pockets of racism among businesses downtown. Unlike the Banner, he began to report on them. Seigenthaler recounts a conversation he had with Eddie Shea of the Chamber of Commerce and John Dubuisson of local department store chain Cain-Sloan regarding the paper’s coverage of the protests. “You’re killing the goose that lays the golden eggs,” they said, adding that “the Banner is not covering it or occasionally covers it on the black page when somebody is hurt.” Seigenthaler thanked the men for their time and declined to make any changes to the paper’s new progressive policy. Seigenthaler believed that it was the media’s responsibility to promptly and accurately report on newsworthy events. He also wanted The Tennessean to be a progressive voice on civil rights, which he considered an issue of humanity - not politics.

In 1964, one year after the inauguration of the metro charter in Nashville, the Civil Rights Act was passed, prohibiting discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, or national origin. This ended the application of “Jim Crow” laws, which allowed segregation that was “separate but equal” and set the foundation for continued anti-discrimination laws to be passed, including the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

Since that time, efforts to desegregate Nashville have continued to meet resistance on a number of fronts. One particular instance was related by a local businessman who was a student at Lipscomb University during the 1960’s. He noted that the signs for the “colored” bathrooms were removed after the Civil Rights Act passed, but the university didn’t stain over any of the doors. Thus, the silhouette of the word was clearly visible for decades following.

This particular example in many ways echoed the zeitgeist of the transitioning city. Although the physical and legal barriers were being removed from the path of black citizens in the city, there was a palpable tradition of white superiority that couldn’t be reversed so easily. Although black people were legally eating at the same counters, sitting in the same classrooms, and using the same water fountains as their white peers, white people could not be coerced into a relationship with the black community. Therefore, even with laws that encouraged acceptance, racial bitterness continued to grow.

Civil Rights attorneys like Avon Williams and his partner Richard Dinkins became voices for the black community, once again being silenced by a compliant and apathetic Nashville government. There were two especially notable cases in which Civil Rights attorneys took on the Nashville Board of Education on issues of desegregation. One, which Williams brought in the mid-50’s, called for an active desegregation strategy for lower education. Another, filed by George Barrett on behalf of Rita Sanders Geier in the late-60s, called for the same for higher education.

To give an indication of the remarkably disparate views represented in the city, neither one of these lawsuits was resolved until the 90s. Currently serving today as one of Nashville’s Appellate Court Judges, Richard Dinkins explains, “There was not an agreement on how to desegregate. You have racially segregated housing, and there are a lot of variables there. You also have the public purpose of education where some people feel one way, and the Chamber of Commerce being involved, as well as other decision makers besides the Board (of Education), all have different opinions.” As Dinkins points out, housing segregation played a large role in the availability of schools for black children and represented one of the many loopholes that opponents to the Civil Rights Act relentlessly exploited. Although it may not be as blatant now as it was 50 years ago, housing segregation continues to be epidemic on a national level.

The case regarding primary and secondary education filed in the 1950s resulted in desegregated or “forced” busing. This plan restructured the way students were assigned and transported as part of a larger desegregation strategy. Even as a practical application of federal law, this specific mandate was met with overwhelming dissent from white parents who felt the control of their children’s educational environment slipping through their fingers. As a result of this outcry from the white community, private schools popped up overnight as alternatives to the reformed public school system. Some private schools birthed during this frenzy remained segregated through the 70s.

Casey Jenkins was one of the most vocal representatives of the dissatisfied portion of the white community, and he launched a mayoral campaign in 1971 against incumbent Beverly Briley. A number of influential individuals around the city offered to fund an anti-busing candidate in the upcoming election, and Jenkins responded. Supporters of Jenkins relentlessly tried to smear Briley’s campaign and even threatened him with violence. Jenkins was able to gain enough support to force a runoff election, but Briley emerged victorious, partially due to the support he received from The Tennessean. “It was the only election where I was really worried about the outcome. The city could have gone down the tubes,” Seigenthaler posits.

When compared to other cities in the Southeast, Nashville played a comparatively progressive role in the civil rights movement. Despite that role, however, Nashville has plenty of blights on its record. Supporting the divisive Casey Jenkins in his mayor campaign represents the failure of a larger community, but one of Nashville’s most noticeable blemishes exists due to the actions of one man. To this day, a statue of Civil War lieutenant general and Ku Klux Klan founder Nathan Bedford Forrest stands proudly alongside the northbound land of Interstate I-65 between Brentwood and Nashville. The statue, created by the late Jack Kershaw and erected in 1998 by Bill Dorris, both members of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, stands on private land and has withstood numerous attempts to have it removed.

While the wounds of racial injustice have scarred over, evidence of a community still transitioning away from its racist roots is plainly visible. As a whole, Nashville has made significant steps toward creating a more equal society. But like kicking a bad habit, reversing a destructive worldview on a citywide level is a long and painful process.

Nashville, although rarely in the national spotlight, has historically been a familiar stage for players representing both sides of the fight for civil rights. Unlike 50 years ago, the issues that African Americans face in Tennessee’s capital are less visible today, but they are even more entrenched. Issues of housing segregation and incarceration rates are as real now as they ever were. Unfortunately, the more subtle systemic racism has been allowed to fly under the radar instead of being addressed alongside the welcome decrease in overt racism, such as police brutality and legally supported segregation.

Just like 50 years ago, today there is an achievable alternative to the racial inequalities that exist both in Nashville and in the rest of our nation. Some of these issues perpetuating inequality today are branches from the same poisoned vine. What the Hispanic population faces today with English-only advocates is a clear manifestation of the same racist attitudes. Understanding the roots of hatred and racism is an integral step in creating a tolerant and accepting society for the future. Accepting people in spite of their differences is one of the principles this nation was founded upon. The next step is putting it into practice.

Celebrate Nashville - Metro Charter


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