NASHVILLE, Tenn. – On April 20, 1960, the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., stood at a podium at Fisk University and said he had come to Nashville “not to bring inspiration, but to gain inspiration from the great movement that has taken place in this community.”
Hundreds of students from Fisk and other historically Black colleges had been sitting down for weeks at whites-only downtown lunch counters. Many were jailed, and their attorney’s home was bombed on April 19, prompting King’s visit.
But the students had also just pressured the mayor to admit, publicly, on the steps of City Hall, that segregation was morally wrong. And within a few more weeks, the lunch counters would be open to all.
It was a major victory for the students in Nashville, the first major Southern city to desegregate its downtown accommodations. But it was just the first step for the attendees of nonviolence workshops led by the Rev. James Lawson. They went on to play integral roles in nearly every major campaign of the civil rights era.
Recently, The Associated Press hosted a video call in which Lawson and three of his workshop participants discussed their civil rights work and how it reverberates in today’s justice movements like Black Lives Matter and voting rights in Georgia.
Angeline Butler was just 15 when she began college at Fisk, and soon found herself role-playing with students acting the part of white mobs. She recalled how with their first sit-ins, “when they asked us to leave, we actually left.”
“You’re building an army,” she explained. “We would go back to the church meeting and discuss how we reacted to being yelled at, being called names, being thrown objects at.”
“It was like boot camp,” added Bernard LaFayette, who roomed with John Lewis at American Baptist Theological Seminary (now American Baptist College).
Their principles of nonviolence were put to the test once they began refusing to leave the lunch counters. During a march, “This guy spat on Jim Lawson. And what did Jim Lawson do? He asked him for a handkerchief,” LaFayette recalled.
Butler added: “Well, he took off his glasses, and he needed to wipe them clean, and he didn’t have a handkerchief. So he asked the guy to give him a handkerchief, and the guy felt so guilty that he did!”
The man was wearing a motorcycle jacket, LaFayette said, so Lawson asked him about motorcycles, and soon the man was walking along with them. When he realized where he was, he ran off, but they never saw him at a counterprotest again.
Lawson had studied nonviolence in India and was an Oberlin College divinity student in 1957 when he met King, who urged him to come South and join the struggle in what Lawson described as “a holy moment."
Lawson said the sit-ins were one of several tactics to desegregate downtowns. The students also worked to take down signs that signaled some accommodations were for whites while others, usually inferior, were for Blacks. And they pressured businesses to hire Blacks for jobs reserved for whites.
As the sit-ins spread, Nashville students helped organize them by forming the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, and “over 200 cities in the southeast between 1960 in 1965 desegregated their downtowns,” Lawson said.
Lawson's students also led the Freedom Rides and Mississippi’s Freedom Summer and organized the voting and desegregation campaigns in Alabama and Mississippi, along with with King and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.
Jim Zwerg, one of the few white students at Fisk, recalled how Lawson linked the movement with his Christian faith. Reading the Bible one night, Zwerg realized "the Gospels were the most wonderful, beautiful, powerful story of nonviolent direct action ever written. And in that moment, I said, ‘I’ve got to do more.’”
Zwerg helped integrate Nashville’s movie theaters, joined the Freedom Rides and refused to fight back when attacked by a mob in Montgomery, Alabama. Dazed and bloodied in a hospital bed, Zwerg told a television interviewer that the rides would continue, helping to build support.
“What we did in the 20th century was the first Great Awakening of resistance to the racist systems,” Lawson said. “And I maintain that Black Lives Matter is the heir of that campaign.”
Some try to brand Black Lives Matter as violent, “just like they called our movement of the 60s ‘communist’ and ‘socialist’ and ‘un-American’,” Lawson observed.
Zwerg said the Black Lives Matter movement gives him hope, as do the young people working to end gun violence after surviving school shootings.
“Georgia just gave me a lot of hope,” Butler added, citing the voters' election of Black and Jewish senators there as the culmination of years of organizing.
“In terms of the struggle, they’ve done some of the best work of follow-up of the 21st century,” Lawson agreed. “That is the kind of organizing that comes out of a nonviolent movement."