At around 12.40 p.m. on February 13, 1960, more than 100 well-dressed college students – most of them Black – appeared at the separate lunches of a trio of five-cent stores in downtown Nashville: Woolworth’s, McLellans, and Kress. There they bought menu items, took a seat and spent the afternoon reading or writing quietly.
These coordinated activities were the first in a long line of sit-ins organized by emerging leaders of the civil rights movement. Among them were Reverend James Lawson, Jr .; Diane Nash, student at Fisk University; and 19-year-old John Lewis, then a student at the American Baptist Theological Seminary (now American Baptist College). Following Martin Luther King Jr.̵
“Although a lot of white teenagers gathered in several shops, there was no violence,” said the Tennessean reported after the third sit-in on February 20, 1960. “Many of the Negro students did their homework when they were at the counters. Others read books or magazines. One, John Lewis, a ministerial student at the American Baptist Seminary, was working on a sermon. “
By then, the number of attendees in Nashville had more than tripled and students across the country were starting similar events in their own cities.
“We cannot deploy all of the volunteers we have,” said Nashville protester Luther Harris Tennessean back then. “Although we work in shifts, there is simply no room for everyone.”
But as participation and enthusiasm for the sit-in strikes in Nashville increased, so did the tension with hostile segregationists who witnessed the protests themselves.
John Lewis’ code of conduct
On the morning of February 27, 1960, demonstrators gathered at Reverend Kelly Miller Smith’s First Baptist Church to prepare for the sit-in that afternoon when Reverend Will Campbell showed up to warn them that the police were planning to to finally allow these tensions to boil over. There would be violence, he warned, and arrests. But the group was not deterred.
“[W]We said we had to go, ”Lewis recalled in an interview with 1981 South facing. “We were afraid, but we felt that we had to testify.”
For his part, Lewis was commissioned to develop a code of conduct to help the demonstrators stay calm and de-escalate potentially violent situations whenever possible. “Don’t strike back and don’t curse back if you’re abused.” “Don’t block the entrances to the shops and aisles.” [PDF]. Lewis also contained important memories of “Remember the Teachings of Jesus Christ, Mohandas K. Gandhi, and Martin Luther King” and “Remember Love and Nonviolence”.
Copies of the Lewis rules were distributed to participants and distributed to several downtown shops.
Violence breaks out
Just because the demonstrators were not looking for trouble did not mean that those who opposed them took a similarly peaceful position. The same afternoon the sit-ins became violent when a white man hit a white protester and the black woman next to him at Woolworth. It wasn’t long before other white viewers got bellicose.
“The whites bothered the students,” said the Tennessean reported: “Kick them, spit on them, call them vulgar names and put cigarettes [sic] on the back. “
The demonstrators endured brutality with heroic stoicism and rarely deviated from Lewis’ rules. Police officers watched but did nothing to help the victims of these malicious attacks – and eventually even began to arrest some of them. While every single member of the white rabble went free, about 80 participants were put in jail.
“It was the most scandalous thing that has happened in the south since Emmett Till,” said Harris Tennessean. “The police have just withdrawn and left us unprotected. Something has to be done. The negro in the south has taken a lot, but he can just take so much. “
John Lewis was among those arrested – a first for the future MP, but hardly the last. Lewis has been arrested more than 45 times during his career as a civil rights activist.
“We didn’t welcome the arrest. We didn’t want to go to prison, ”said Lewis. “But it became … a moving mind. Something came over us and consumed us. And we started singing ‘We Shall Overcome’ and later we started singing ‘Paul and Silas in prison, had no money for their bail …’ It became a religious experience that took place in prison. ‘
Lewis and his fellow protesters were released late at night, and Nashville Mayor Ben West agreed to meet with a coalition of black ministers on Monday about the injustice of the arrests. Although West’s openness to dialogue was a promising sign of the movement, it would take months before he actually started to break down segregation in the city.
A decisive march
The sit-in strikes in Nashville continued until spring. After a bomb detonated on April 19, 1960 on the property of NAACP civil rights lawyer Z. Alexander Looby, thousands of demonstrators marched to the town hall. West met them on the front steps, and when Nash asked him to recommend breaking the separation of lunch tables, he said yes.
“Of course it’s up to the managers,” West said. “I can’t tell a man how to run his business.”
It wasn’t exactly a final end to segregation at the lunch tables, but the West’s public statement has helped get the ball rolling. In the following weeks, civil rights activists and local entrepreneurs worked on a plan to end segregation at six counters in Nashville, including Woolworth’s, McLellans, Kress, Walgreens, Harveys, and Cain-Sloan. On May 10, similar to their first sit-in, black students entered the facility, bought their meals, ate undisturbed, and left.
The beginning of “Good Trouble”
Nashville was the first city to give up its lunchtime counter and the long months of sit-in strikes were a testament to the effectiveness of peaceful protests. Even Martin Luther King Jr. praised the “electrifying movement of Negro students [that] has destroyed the calm surface of campuses and communities in the south. “
For John Lewis, who would work closely with King, this was the beginning of a lifelong commitment to what he so memorably described as “getting into trouble”.
“The underlying philosophy was the whole idea of redeeming suffering – suffering that in itself could help redeem the larger society,” Lewis said of the sit-ins. “We talked about our goal, our dream, the beloved community, the open society, the society that is at peace with itself, in which you forget race and color and see people as people. We have dealt intensively with the question of means and purposes. If we want to create the beloved community, the methods must be love and peace. “
On Friday, July 17, 2020, John Lewis died at the age of 80 after a six-month fight against pancreatic cancer. Lewis was not only a well-known civil rights activist, but also one of ten children born to tenants in rural Troy, Alabama. He was a leading member of the Democratic Party. After being elected to Congress in 1986, he was reelected 16 times and served in the US House of Representatives from 1987 until his death in Georgia’s 5th congressional district.