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 79 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 79—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 38 years ago—nearly half Mrs. Hardge’s life and two-thirds of mine—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.
Next was that Thursday, the 18th. This time there were close to 200 of us. My group went to W.T. Grant’s. Again the counter was closed. Again we stayed the afternoon, this time about four hours. Again there was minimal response from employees or onlookers. White Nashville was just not ready for this. It had never had to deal with black people this way. These waves of well-dressed, well-behaved young black men and women were something no one had seen before.
We wanted them to see us. We planned each sit-in to begin around lunchtime 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 20th, 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 storeowners 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 that the police would do nothing to stop.
This was what we had prepared for. That night Bernard and I let ourselves into the ABT administration building—as a janitor, I had my own set of keys—and “liberated” a ream of mimeograph paper. Though many of the students who would be sitting in the next day had been trained, our numbers were swelling so fast that there were hundreds who had not. So I wrote up a basic list of dos and don’ts to be distributed the next day:
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. Block 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 500 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, Miss., 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.
There was no question we would continue, no debate, no protest from any of the adults. We knew that sooner or later the stakes would be raised. It was a natural step in the process, a step we had practiced and prepared for. Our workshops had been like little laboratories in human behavior and response to nonviolent protest. Now we were seeing real humans respond in almost exactly the ways Jim Lawson had taught us they would. The danger waiting for us this day was to be expected, which didn’t mean I wasn’t a little bit nervous. But by now I was so committed deep inside to the sureness and sanctity of the nonviolent way, and I was so calmed by the sense that the Spirit of History was with us, that the butterflies were gone by the time we left the church and headed downtown.
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.
I got back on my stool and sat there, not saying a word. The others did the same. Violence does beget violence, but the opposite is just as true. Hitting someone who does not hit back can last only so long. Fury spends itself pretty quickly when there’s no fury facing it. We could see in the mirror on the wall in front of us the crowd gathered at our backs. They continued trying to egg us on, but the beating subsided.
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 onto 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.