Use this excerpt from Lewis's Walking with the Wind to explore the Civil Rights Movement.
The Civil Rights Movement produced many African American heroes. Among those at the top of this list is John Lewis, who as a young student led the Nashville Student Movement in 1960. Using nonviolence and civil disobedience as their tools, Lewis and other courageous African Americans organized a series of sit-ins to demonstrate for the desegregation of Nashville.
During these campaigns, he was often harassed and beaten but always stood firm in his adherence to nonviolent social action. Lewis became a major figure of the Civil Rights Movement and was elected chairperson of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) in 1963. Since 1987, Lewis has served in the U.S. House of Representatives.
In 1998, Lewis published his memoirs, Walking With the Wind, in which he recalls his years as a key participant in the historic struggles for civil rights. In the following excerpt, Lewis remembers the first Nashville sit-in he helped organize in February 1960.
Walking With The Wind
by John Lewis
I went back to First Baptist during that Christmas 1996 visit and found nothing but a gravel parking lot where the church used to be and a plaque telling passersby that this was where Kelly Miller Smith's church once stood, the site where the Nashville sit-ins began. The church was razed in 1972 and rebuilt about a quarter mile down the hill. A low-slung modern building, the new sanctuary sits today near the interstate and the railroad tracks. On a Friday morning I could hear the rumble and clanks of a passing freight train as I walked through the front doors.
A group of three women sat at a back room table, collating and stapling a stack of church mailings. I started to introduce myself, but one of the ladies smiled and waved me silent.
"Oh, I'm up on you, John Lewis," she said, coming around the table to give me a hug. "I'm up on all of our young men."
Her name was Beulah Hardge. She'd lived in Nashville all her seventy-nine years, she said, most of it over on Jefferson Street. She'd been coming to First Baptist since she was a young girl and she was right here, "right in the middle of it," she told me, during that spring of 1960.
"My children were too young to take part," said Mrs. Hardge, "but I did what I could. We all did. Making sandwiches, raising money, we all did whatever we could."
I looked at Mrs. Hardge -- white-haired, stout, still going strong at seventy-nine -- and I thought that her name should be on that plaque up the hill, hers and the names of hundreds of thousands of others in cities throughout the South who made the movement what it was. Yes, we marchers and demonstrators filled the streets and went to jail. But beyond us, behind us, were the people nobody ever saw, the Beulah Hardges of the world.
It's hard to believe it was thirty-eight years ago -- nearly half Mrs. Hardge's life and two-thirds of mind -- that I sat with the others in those pews on that snowy Saturday night, soaking in the sweet sensations of our first sit-in and asking ourselves what was next.
We wanted them to see us. We planned each sit-in to begin around lunch time because we wanted people to be there when we arrived. We wanted white people, everyday citizens, everyday customers to be exposed to us, to see us as we were, not as something in their minds, in their imaginations. We wanted them to watch how we responded to the people who refused to serve us. And we wanted them to watch those people as well. Among so many other things, this was about education, pricking consciences, teaching one race about another, and, if need be, about itself. If some of these white onlookers went back to their own homes, their own jobs, their own churches, and began talking about this in heartfelt terms, about what they had seen, then we had achieved one of our main objectives.
Two days later, on Saturday, the twentieth, we marched 340 strong to the same four five-and-tens we'd been to before. We also added Walgreen's to the list. Now there were hecklers inside the stores and small angry crowds outside, complaining to reporters that they now had no place to eat lunch.
The stores were now beginning to counterattack. The managers at Kress's and McClellan's ordered employees to stack goods -- wastebaskets, blankets, lampshades, pots and pans -- on the lunch counters to keep us from studying. There was no violence, but temperatures were rising. This could not go on forever. Sooner or later the city would have to respond in one way or another.
That night the store owners asked for a moratorium, promising to come up with a response, what they called a proposal. Jim Lawson met with us, the central committee, and we agreed to wait. But by the end of that week, when we'd heard nothing, we said enough. Saturday we would sit in again.
This time, though, the city was set to respond. Late that Friday afternoon we got word from Nashville's chief of police, a man named Hosse, that anyone involved in further protests would be arrested for disorderly conduct and trespassing. There were also rumors of planned attacks by groups of young whites, attacks which the police would do nothing to stop.
1. Strike back nor curse if abused.
2. Laugh out.
3. Hold conversations with floor walker.
4. Leave your seat until your leader has given you permission to do so.
5. Black entrances to stores outside nor the aisles inside.
1. Show yourself friendly and courteous at all times.
2. Sit straight; always face the counter.
3. Report all serious incidents to your leader.
4. Refer information seekers to your leader in a polite manner.
5. Remember the teachings of Jesus Christ, Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King. Love and nonviolence is the way.
MAY GOD BLESS EACH OF YOU
Bernard and I, with the help of a young administrative secretary, made five hundred copies of the leaflet that night. Then we locked up and left.
The next morning there were fewer than a hundred of us gathered in the pews at First Baptist as we listened to Will Campbell, the white minister I'd first met at Highlander, warn us of the danger waiting for us downtown. Campbell, who had been run out of Oxford, Mississippi, a couple of years earlier for playing Ping-Pong with a black janitor, had come to Tennessee to work with the religious community. He was also a member of the Nashville Council of Churches, as well as one of the few white members of the NCLC. He'd been to a few of our meetings, supported us completely and had come down this morning to tell us he'd heard from some of Nashville's white community leaders that the police did indeed intend to make arrests that day. He said there might be violence as well, attacks from onlookers.
To the five stores we'd already struck, we added a sixth target this day -- Cain-Sloan. As we walked en masse toward the Arcade, we faced the typical taunts we'd come to expect from white onlookers, mostly teenagers. But this time there was some pushing and shoving, which was new, and which the police, who were in sight along the way, did nothing to stop. I learned later that after we'd passed through the Arcade, a black teenager who worked at one of the stores there and had nothing to do with our group was badly beaten by some of those young white toughs. It was sickening to hear that.
As soon as my group entered our target store, Woolworth's, we were confronted with a group of young white men shouting, "Go home, nigger!" and "Get back to Africa!" They jabbed us as we passed and chided us for not fighting back. "What's the matter? You chicken?" they teased, trying to force the situation into terms they were comfortable with -- fists and fighting.
We weren't playing by those rules, of course, and that infuriated them even further. No sooner did we take our seats at the upstairs counter than some of these young men began pushing the group at the downstairs restaurant off their stools, shoving them against the counter, punching them.
We immediately went down to join our brothers and sisters, taking seats of our own. I was hit in the ribs, not too hard, but enough to knock me over. Down the way I could see one of the white men stubbing a lit cigarette against the back of a guy in our group, though I couldn't tell who it was in the swirl of the action.
At the same time, we would learn later, the same thing was happening in the other stores. Yellow mustard was squeezed onto the head of one black male student in Kress's while the crowd hooted and laughed. Ketchup was poured down the shirt of another. Paul LaPrad, being white, attracted particularly brutal attention over at McClellan's. He was pulled off his stool, beaten and kicked by a group of young whites with the word "Chattanooga" written on their jackets -- a reference to recent white-on-black attacks in that city that had followed a series of sit-ins there.
A television camera crew was at McClellan's, recording the scene as LaPrad's attackers spent themselves. It filmed Paul -- bloody and bruised and silent -- pulling himself back on to his chair. When the footage aired that night on national television, it marked one of the earliest instances where Americans were shown firsthand the kind of anger and ugliness that the peaceful movement for civil rights was prompting in the South. Many viewers were sickened by what they saw. They would see more in the years to come.
We didn't sit there long before the police, conspicuous by their absence during the attacks, arrived. I didn't imagine they had come to arrest anyone for assault, and I was right. As the young men who had beaten us looked on and cheered, we were told that we were under arrest for "disorderly conduct."
It was strange how I felt as a large, blue-shirted Nashville police officer stood over me and said without emotion, "You're under arrest." A lifetime of taboos from my parents rushed through my mind as the officer gripped me by the bicep of my left arm. Don't get in trouble. Stay away from Love Street. Only bad people go to jail. I could see my mother's face now. I could hear her voice: Shameful. Disgraceful.
But I felt no shame or disgrace. I didn't feel fear, either. As we were led out of the store single file, singing "We Shall Overcome," I felt exhilarated. As we passed through a cheering crowd gathered on the sidewalk outside, I felt high, almost giddy with joy. As we approached the open rear doors of a paddy wagon, I felt elated.
From Walking With the Wind by John Lewis. Copyright (© 1998) by John Lewis. Reprinted by permission of Simon & Schuster, Inc.
1. The sit-ins John Lewis recounts in the excerpt are an example of civil disobedience. People practice civil disobedience to protest nonviolently a law they believe to be unjust. Henry David Thoreau introduced this philosophy in his classic and influential 1849 essay "Civil Disobedience." Have students read "Civil Disobedience." Ask them to examine as a research project how Thoreau's ideas evolved into the nonviolent protests of the Civil Rights Movement and Mahatma Gandhi's "satyagraha."
2. Civil disobedience has played a significant role in African American history, not only during the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s, but also during the abolitionist movement a century earlier. For example, Harriet Tubman and others were part of a secret network of African American northerners who helped guide slaves to freedom. Ask students to find additional examples of prominent African Americans who used civil disobedience for change.
3. Have students create a gallery of prominent leaders who advocated and participated in civil disobedience. Examples include Henry David Thoreau, Martin Luther King Jr., Dorothy Day, Mahatma Gandhi, Harriet Tubman, and Dick Gregory. Ask students to find photographs or draw portraits of these men and women and write a few sentences underneath describing their accomplishments.
4. Select a controversial issue from the country's past or present (such as the Vietnam War draft or the clear-cutting of old-growth forests) and structure a dialogue between two students or two groups of students. One side is intent on carrying out a more confrontational protest; the other favors a more civil, nonviolent approach. Each side should try to persuade the other that their method would be more effective. During the dialogue, the group supporting civil disobedience should offer historical examples of how nonviolent protest or passive resistance was ultimately successful in changing laws.
5. In the excerpt, John Lewis lists rules that he asks the protesters at the sit-in to follow. Ask students why these rules were so important. How did each contribute to the success of the sit-ins and the Civil Rights Movement in general? What did the participants want onlookers to see?
6. Ask students if there are any issues about which they feel strongly enough to break the law. Do any students believe that laws should never be broken, even when protesting a policy they believe to be unjust? Should allegiance to the state be paramount? Write responses on the board. You may also want to create a debate around these questions.