The genius and fearlessness of Rev. James Lawson and the young men and women who followed him are the touchstones of this pivotal chapter of the American civil rights struggle. Inspired by his studies in India of Gandhi's work, as well as the Montgomery, Alabama bus boycott led by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Lawson begins in 1960 to train black and white college students in nonviolent methods to desegregate downtown Nashville, Tennessee. The students stage a sit-in at segregated city lunch counters in February 1960. First they are ignored, but when they return again and again, they are beaten and jailed. The resulting outrage in the African American community leads to a boycott of downtown stores; many whites stay away as well, disturbed by the brutality and disruption. Business leaders apply pressure for a political solution, and bombing of a prominent black lawyer's house prompts the students to march on city hall and confront the mayor. After he is forced to admit that segregation is wrong, Nashville begins to desegregate.

Nashville Overview

In 1960, young black college students face a dilemma. While their schools teach the constitutional right of equality under the law, their off-campus surroundings in the heavily segregated city of Nashville starkly refute that premise. State-sponsored "Jim Crow" laws govern many aspects of life, and Nashville's black and white communities are kept apart.

Enter James Lawson, a young black minister from Ohio who understands Gandhi's nonviolent legacy and gives the students the organization, discipline, and strategies they sorely need. Very few people take Gandhi as seriously as Lawson does. Growing up in the 1930s and 1940s, he follows the work of Gandhi in the newspapers. After spending several years in India studying with Gandhi's disciples, he returns to the United States in 1956, determined to share Gandhi's methods with African Americans.

Echoing Gandhi's attack on the salt tax as an emotional rallying point, Lawson turns his attention to Nashville's segregated lunch counters, typically situated in department stores and five-and-dimes that sell goods to black patrons, but draw the line at serving them a cup of coffee. After months of rigorous training to help students withstand the taunts, slurs and blows of the city's staunchest segregationists, Lawson's students descend on the lunch counters, prompting white businesspeople to shut down rather than serve them.

At first, the townspeople dismiss the sit-ins as a passing fad. When it becomes apparent that the students are in for the long haul, they begin to incur the wrath of racist vigilantes. Outraged by the city's heavy-handed treatment and incarceration of peaceful, well-dressed young men and women, Nashville's rank-and-file black citizenry boycott the city's white-owned businesses, delivering a profound economic blow. White customers, repulsed by the atmosphere generated by segregation extremists, also stay away, adding to the mounting losses.

Coming to grips with the futility of mass arrests, a deluge of negative national publicity, and a shocking attempt on the life of a prominent black attorney, Nashville Mayor Ben West relents, asking the city's department stores to desegregate the lunch counters immediately.

Nashville Timeline

December 1955Bus boycott begins in Montgomery, Alabama.

September 1959Rev. James Lawson begins nonviolent action training workshops in Nashville.

February 13, 1960Nashville students hold first sit-in.

February 27, 1960Students at lunch counters are assaulted, then arrested.

March 1960Boycott of Nashville department stores begins.

April 19, 1960The home of a black lawyer, Z. Alexander Looby, is bombed. After protesters march on city hall, the mayor calls for desegregation of the lunch counters.

May 10, 1960Lunch counters begin to serve African-Americans.

Nashville People

BERNARD LAFAYETTE, JR. has been a Civil Rights Movement activist, minister, educator, lecturer, and is an authority on the strategy on nonviolent social change. He co-founded the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) in 1960. He was a leader of the Nashville Movement, 1960 and on the Freedom Rides, 1961 and the 1965 Selma Movement. He directed the Alabama Voter Registration Project in 1962, and he was appointed National Program Administrator for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) and National Coordinator of the 1968 Poor Peoples' campaign by Martin Luther King, Jr.

An ordained minister, Dr. LaFayette earned his B.A. from the American Baptist Theological Seminary in Nashville, Tennessee, and his Ed.M. and Ed.D from Harvard University. He has served on the faculties of Columbia Theological Seminary in Atlanta and Alabama State University in Montgomery, where he was Dean of the Graduate School. Dr. LaFayette is a former president of the American Baptist College of American Baptist Theological Seminary in Nashville, Tennessee. He has traveled extensively to many countries as a lecturer and consultant on peace and nonviolence. Dr. LaFayette is currently Distinguished Scholar-in-Residence and Director of the Center for Nonviolence and Peace Studies at the University of Rhode Island.

JAMES LAWSON has been called “the teacher of the civil rights movement.” A former missionary who became a prominent Christian leader in the South, the Rev. Lawson studied Gandhi’s techniques in Nagpur, India, and later joined forces with Martin Luther King Jr. to become a principal architect of the African-American civil rights struggle.

Rev. Lawson’s reputation as a role model for nonviolent action began with his imprisonment for resisting the draft during the Korean War. His workshops on techniques and strategies of nonviolent resistance drove the Nashville sit-ins and boycott, and became what King called the model of the movement. As Southern Secretary of the Fellowship of Reconciliation, Lawson conducted workshops on nonviolent strategy and acted as a movement trouble-shooter in Birmingham, Alabama, and Little Rock, Arkansas, in addition to his history-making work in Nashville.

Until recently, Rev. Lawson was pastor of the Holman United Methodist Church in Los Angeles and still maintains close ties to the church. He continues to lecture and teach on practical applications of nonviolent resistance, as well as championing a number of causes, including immigrants’ rights in the United States and workers’ rights to a living wage.

In 2006, more than 40 years after being expelled from for his work in desegregation, Lawson returned to Vanderbilt University to accept the position of Distinguished University Professor for the 2006-07 academic year.

JOHN LEWIS has dedicated his life to protecting human rights, securing personal dignity and building what he calls, “The Beloved Community.” He is widely known as an organizer and participant in numerous sit-ins, freedom rides, and protest marches throughout the South during the civil rights movement of the 1960s.

Lewis’ leadership of the Nashville Movement - a student-led effort to desegregate the city of Nashville using sit-in techniques based on the teachings of Gandhi - established him as one of the movement’s defining figures. During the height of the movement, in 1963, John Lewis was unanimously elected chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), and that same year was a keynote speaker at the March on Washington.

In 1965, he led marchers across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama on what has become known as “Bloody Sunday.” This march, where state troopers attacked the protestors, helped lead to the Voting Rights Act of 1965. In 1968, Lewis joined Robert Kennedy in his campaign for the presidency. He spent the next decade organizing and registering four million voters in the South. In 1986, he ran for U.S. Congress from Georgia. Lewis won the seat and serves in Congress today. He remains committed to the philosophy and discipline of nonviolent social action.

Hailed by many as one of the great unsung heroes of the Civil Rights Movement, DIANE NASH was a student at Fisk University when she took part in the lunch counter sit-ins in Nashville in 1960. Her public confrontation with Mayor Ben West accelerated the desegregation of Nashville's lunch counters and other public facilities. The following year she coordinated the Freedom Ride from Birmingham, Ala., to Jackson, Miss. In 1963, President John F. Kennedy appointed Nash to the national committee promoting passage of the Civil Rights Act. In 1965 she was presented with the Southern Christian Leadership Cconference’s Rosa Parks Award for Leadership by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., for planning and carrying out the voting rights campaign in Selma, Ala.

Nash continued to work on desegregation and civil rights issues and her efforts, along with those of other leaders and supporters, brought about two major legislative goals: the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act. After 1965, Nash brought her same zeal and level of involvement to issues such as racial and underclass oppression and protests against the war in Vietnam.

In 2003 Nash was a recipient of the "Distinguished American Award" in 2003 presented by the John F. Kennedy Library and Foundation. She was also awarded a LBJ Award for Leadership in Civil Rights in 2004 presented by the Lyndon Baines Johnson Library and Museum. A native and resident of Chicago, Nash has worked for several decades in tenant organizing, housing advocacy and real estate, and as a lecturer on women's issues and civil rights movements.

JOHN SEIGENTHALER was city editor at The Tennessean, Nashville's morning newspaper, during the student sit-ins in 1960. The news media played a pivotal role in shaping public opinion which, in turn contributed to the success of the nonviolent movement. In his position as editor, Seigenthaler helped to expose injustices and force an open debate on racism. In the early 1960's, Siegenthaler left journalism briefly to serve in the U.S. Justice Department as administrative assistant to Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy. His work in the field of civil rights led to his service as chief negotiator with the governor of Alabama during the Freedom Riders.

A former president of the American Society of Newspaper Editors and an award-winning journalist, Seigenthaler served on The Tennessean staff for 43 years. He began his career in 1949 as a cub reporter and at his retirement was an editor, publisher and CEO of the paper. He retains the title chairman emeritus of The Tennessean. In September 1982, Seigenthaler became founding editorial director of USA TODAY and served in that position for a decade, retiring from both the Nashville and national newspapers in 1991. He then went on to found the First Amendment Center at Vanderbilt University with the mission of creating national discussion, dialogue, and debate about First Amendment Values.

"Jim Crow" Laws

"Jim Crow" commonly refers to the system of legal segregation in the South that emerged after the Civil War. The term originated with a white minstrel entertainer, Thomas "Daddy" Rice, who performed a song-and-dance routine called "Jump Jim Crow" beginning in 1828. His inspiration for the act was an old slave belonging to a Mr. Crow of Kentucky. In the middle of the century the term was used to describe segregated facilities in the North. By the late nineteenth century the name Jim Crow came to symbolize the laws that mandated segregation in the U.S. South.

Nashville Analysis

We Shall Overcome, the great hymn of the American civil rights movement, became in later years a universal anthem of protest. It was sung at peaceful demonstrations in Cape Town, Prague, and Jakarta – the most easily noticed example of how African Americans, who studied and learned from the campaigns of Indian nationalists, themselves became examples for people using nonviolent action to secure human rights and justice. But for those who watched it from afar, the American civil rights movement yielded more than just a song. Thanks to its timing and location, the struggle to end racial segregation in the American South was the first popular nonviolent movement to unfold before the modern mass media. The media's presence created new strategic possibilities in waging nonviolent campaigns, especially the opportunity to involve third parties who do not have a direct stake in a conflict but who have the means to tip the balance toward one side or the other.

Since the 1960s, as technology and commerce have expanded the global reach of electronic media and communications, activists for rights and democracy have given careful attention to the images their movements project to decision makers in Washington and other key capitals, and to the people who keep them in power. Media-related tactics have the potential to be damaging if they foster false hope that intervention by external players can substitute for patient internal organization or making good strategic choices in a conflict. But knowing that the world is watching has lifted the morale of many movements, and the coverage has helped channel material support from distant places to those on the front lines.

The American civil rights campaigners of the 1960s contributed one other thing to the power of nonviolent resistance in the final third of the twentieth century. Because they were conscious that nonviolent sanctions had been successful earlier in history, and because they were convinced that the use of these sanctions had intrinsic advantages in resisting oppression, their success conferred on nonviolent action a new aura of effectiveness that it had never before possessed. Not only did the mass media popularize the story of what was done in the American South – they universalized the impression that nonviolent force could be more powerful.

In the United States, that force transformed the social fabric and political direction of the nation. In Nashville and in other southern communities, the sit-ins separated white leaders who had no deep interest in preserving segregation from those who did; the most ambivalent elements of the old order were detached from the most intransigent. The Freedom Rides played out on a larger stage – the riders destabilized the balance of interests that kept the American system of apartheid in place, by provoking the national government to act against its institutions and practices. The quickest way for civil rights activists to make headway in the Deep South was to nationalize the struggle by igniting crises that would draw federal intervention. "The key to everything," Martin Luther King declared in the early 1960s, "is federal commitment."

What made this possible was, again, the growing role of television in American life: Commotion on the streets was experienced vicariously by millions of people. Even if this did not guarantee speedy action, it did reframe the public interest. The Freedom Rides, the Birmingham demonstrations in the spring of 1963, and the march from Selma to Montgomery two years later created unforgettable images of conflict between local authorities and nonviolent protestors, transferring legitimacy and popular sympathy from one to the other - and changing the political environment in which national leaders had to operate.

The civil rights movement followed a simple logic: It mobilized black people behind nonviolent sanctions that compelled the nation to change. Martin Luther King's declaration on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in 1963 that he had a dream of racial equality capped the largest nonviolent demonstration of the postwar period in America, the March on Washington. In the wake of President Kennedy's assassination later that year, a white southerner, Lyndon Johnson, moved into the White House and drove the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 into the annals of human liberation – as Dr. King and his legions drove their spirit outward to the world.

In 1936, when the black American leader Howard Thurman visited with Gandhi in India, his wife, who had accompanied him, sang two Negro spirituals for the great Indian sage. Dr. Thurman then explained that "striking things" in hundreds of spirituals reminded him of what Gandhi had told them and that black Americans needed to use his solutions to lift up their own people. "Well," Gandhi replied, "if it comes true, it may be through the Negroes that the unadulterated message of non-violence will be delivered to the world."

1 Cook, Robert. Sweet Land of Liberty? The African-American Struggle for Civil Rights in the Twentieth Century. London: Longman, 1998, p. 129.

2 Jack, Homer, ed., The Gandhi Reader, New York: Grove Press, 1994, p. 316.

from "A Force More Powerful," by Peter Ackerman and Jack DuVall, published by St. Martin's Press, 2000.