While Tennessee’s capital city isn’t usually mentioned as a center of protest, Nashville played an out-sized role in planning and driving the Civil Rights Movement.
Much of it was based in the city’s historically Black colleges, including Fisk University, Tennessee State, (then Tennessee A and I), Meharry Medical College and American Baptist Theological Seminary. Students and faculty joined to plan protests, including the sit-ins that swept the nation, and the Freedom Rides that challenged segregation of intrastate transportation.
Today, Nashville is a booming tourist destination, although few realize the city’s crucial civil rights history. Visitors drawn to the music scene and hip “Brooklyn of the South” atmosphere, can still find many signs of the city’s past. The most important stops include the Civil Rights Room at the Nashville Public Library, and a restaurant where the protesters found success.
None other than Martin Luther King praised the city’s young protesters. Etched in glass at the Nashville library are his words: “I came to Nashville not to bring inspiration, but to gain inspiration from the great movement that has taken place in this community.”
This is another city where it can help to join an organized tour since the history isn’t immediately clear.
Nashville Public Library’s Civil Rights Room
Surprisingly, the city’s top civil rights site is found in its downtown library Civil Rights Room, which is home to an extensive exhibit and display area focused on the history.
Located on the second floor of the downtown library, the room includes artifacts like the lunch counter where protesters staged sit-ins, and video presentations.
Nashville is where students came to train for non-violent protest through workshops organized by James Lawson, a Methodist minister, who was studying at Vanderbilt University’s Divinity School, and was later expelled. Those classes welcomed a cadre of passionate students, who would become a who’s who of the civil rights movement, including John Lewis, Diane Nash, Bernard Lafayette, James Bevel and C. T. Vivian.
A video of one of the protest workshops offers a fascinating insight into the training students received. One jarring role-playing exercise, shown in the video below, has students preparing for the abuse they would soon face at lunch counters.
Watching the training video offers is a moving experiences that lets a visitor wonder what they would have done in similar circumstances. (It’s reminiscent of the experience visitors have at Atlanta’s Civil Rights Center, where they sit at a counter, don headphones and get an idea what it would be like to endure a sit-in protest.) Several videos are on offer, so it’s possible to spend several hours here.
Other library exhibits include posters, fliers and photos of the protests. Perhaps the most important take-away is found in the room’s center table, which is fashioned like a lunch counter. There, engraved into the surface are the “10 Rules of Conduct” for protesters:
- Do show yourself friendly at the counter at all times
- Do sit straight and always face the counter
- Do refer all information to your leader
- Do remember the teachings of Jesus Christ, Mohandas K. Gandhi and Martin Luther King
- Don’t strike back, or curse back if attacked
- Don’t laugh out
- Don’t hold conversations with floor walkers
- Don’t leave your seat until your leader has given permission
- Don’t block entrances to stores and aisles
- Remember love and nonviolence. May God bless each of you.
Woolworth on Fifth
It’s not often that you can go out for a delicious restaurant meal, and have a cultural experience. But this downtown Nashville eatery lets you do just that.
Just a few weeks after the sit-ins in Greensboro, NC, Nashville students followed suit. (Although they had been planning their protest for a year.) On February 13, 1960, they staged a sit-in at Woolworths and other stores with lunch counters.
Nashville, which still calls itself the Athens of the South, considered itself an enlightened city, so at first it ignored the protests, but two weeks later, as hundreds more joined the sit-ins, police began to arrest the students. Notably, it was the first time that John Lewis was arrested, although it would happen dozens of more times to the man who became a congressman from Georgia.
Tensions began to build across the city, culminating in the bombing of the home of a local civil rights attorney. Protesters converged on City Hall, where something remarkable happened.
Diane Nash, a 22-year-old student, asked Nashville mayor Ben West a simple question “Do you feel it is wrong to discriminate against a person solely on the basis of their race or color?”
He admitted he did. And a few weeks later he ended segregation in the city.
Today, Woolworth on Fifth is a festive, full-service restaurant serving modern takes on down-home dishes. Although it could have been done poorly, the owners manage to celebrate the building’s important history without cheapening it.
Hours and menu information here.
The library is just a short walk from Woolworth, so you can easily see both in a brief visit.
The library’s garage is located at 151 6th Ave N. Enter on Sixth or Seventh Ave. S, between Church Street and Commerce Street. The first 90 minutes are free with a validation stamp available at the counter.
To learn more about the city’s rich civil rights history, consider taking a guided tour. Options include a walking tour, and one focused on the important role women played in the city’s civil rights movement.
Find general city tourism information here.