Nashville sit-ins made history and headlines, panelists say

Monday, February 15, 2010

From left: John Seigenthaler, George Barrett, the Rev. James Lawson, Rip Patton and Gene Policinski

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    NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Fifty years ago the sit-in movement in Nashville had a drastic effect on the community and on headlines, panelists said last week.

    “It was a big news story,” said First Amendment Center Founder John Seigenthaler, who was a reporter at The Tennessean when the sit-ins occurred.

    The Feb. 12 program, co-sponsored by the NAACP Nashville and the First Amendment Center, focused on how the news media covered the early civil rights movement in Nashville.

    Joining Seigenthaler on the panel were civil rights pioneer the Rev. James Lawson, sit-in and Freedom Rides participant Rip Patton, civil rights advocate and lawyer George Barrett, and moderator Gene Policinski, vice president and executive director of the First Amendment Center.

    The participants commended The Tennesean’s coverage of the sit-ins, calling it professional and objective. On the other hand, coverage by the other local newspaper, the Nashville Banner, was critical of the sit-in protesters and stressed the property rights of the lunch-counter owners, the panelists said.

    “I think quickly the students (who participated in the protests) recognized there were two newspapers in town and they covered it (the sit-in movement) differently,” Seigenthaler said.

    That recognition allowed him entree into the movement that he might not have had otherwise, Seigenthaler said, relating the story of how he was allowed to enter an executive session of the sit-in participants.

    “I don’t think a Banner reporter would have been treated that way,” he said.

    The students who participated in Nashville’s movement went on to become civil rights leaders across the South, the panelists said.

    “This nation owes a lot to Nashville and the students of Nashville,” Patton said. “They went all throughout the nation making people aware of the movement and what was going on.”

    Fisk University student Diane Nash went on to help found the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. John Lewis, a student at American Baptist Theological Seminary, now American Baptist College, was another founding member, a principal speaker at the 1963 March on Washington and a leader of the Selma-to-Montgomery voting-rights marches. He is now a Georgia congressman.

    Lawson became a Methodist pastor in Memphis, where he led the sanitation workers’ strike that in 1968 brought the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. to town, where he was assassinated.

    Now a distinguished professor at Vanderbilt University, Lawson was expelled from the university’s divinity school in 1960 for his participation in civil rights protests. In 1959, while still a student at the university, he began training other students at several of Nashville’s black colleges in nonviolent civil disobedience.

    After five or six months of training, the students began sit-ins at Nashville’s downtown lunch counters on Feb. 13, 1960. Over the next two months, the sit-ins continued and a boycott of downtown businesses began. Then early on April 19, a bomb damaged the home of a black attorney who had supported the students. That day, a group of at least 3,000 people gathered for a silent march to the plaza near City Hall where they met Mayor Ben West.

    In the ensuing dialogue, West admitted he thought segregation was morally wrong and the lunch counters should be desegregated. Negotiations with business owners followed over the next few weeks, and on May 10, Nashville became the first major Southern city to begin the desegregation of its public facilities, historian Linda Wynn of the Tennessee Historical Commission said in an interview with the Associated Press.

    The success of Nashville’s highly organized movement was both a model and an inspiration to other cities, Wynn said.

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