Nashville Student Movement (1959-1964)

Rev. Jim Lawson leads training in nonviolent resistant, Nashville, ca. 1960
©, Fair use image

The Nashville Student Movement (NSM) was a civil rights organization in Nashville, Tennessee. The NSM was established when Rev. James Lawson and the Nashville Christian Leadership Council (NCLC) hosted nonviolent workshops at his church, Clark Memorial United Methodist Church, in 1959. The NSM challenged racial segregation in Nashville. Some of the leaders of NSM included Diane Nash, Marion Barry, John Lewis, Bernard Lafayette, and James Bevel. These student activists would later become major figures in the national Civil Rights Movement.

In early 1959, Reverend Kelly Miller Smith Jr, James Lawson, and other members decided to target Nashville downtown lunch counters. The NCLC attempted to talk to department store managers about African Americans eating at the downtown lunch counters that were segregated. Store managers refused to negotiate with them. Lawson then began to host nonviolent training sessions for students who attended Nashville’s four Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HCBUs): Fisk University, Tennessee Agricultural and Industrial State College (Now Tennessee State University), Meharry Medical College, and American Baptist Theological Seminary (Now American Baptist College).

The NSM’s main goal was to use nonviolence to challenge segregation in Nashville’s public accommodations. Diane Nash and Marion Barry who participated in the workshops were Fisk University students at the time. John Lewis, Bernard Lafayette, and James Bevel attended American Baptist Theological Seminary. These workshops prepared the students for the verbal and physical abuse they would experience from white segregationists when they attempted to engage in protests and demonstrations.

Little known to the world, NSM students attempted lunch counter sit-ins at Harvey’s Department Store and Cain-Sloan in November and December 1959 before the more famous Greensboro Sit-ins of February 1, 1960 by four college students from North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University.

On February 13, 1960, NSM organized more than 100 students for what many would remember as the beginning of the Nashville Sit-In Movement. Their main target was the Kress, McClellan, and Woolworth’s lunch counters that day. The students sat at lunch counters in those stores and demanded service. They were denied that service on February 13.

The NSM would continue the lunch counter protests which soon expanded to other lunch counters included Grants, Walgreens, Greyhound, and Trailways. On May 10, 1960 after negotiations that included Nashville Mayor Raphael Benjamin West, lunch counters in the city were desegregated. As a result of their success, the NSM would be recognized as the largest, best-organized, and most disciplined student sit-in groups in the south.

After the Nashville Sit-Ins, the NSM would continue at their attempt to desegregate other public accommodations including Nashville grocery stores such as H.G. Hill. In February 1961, NSM was involved with stand-in protests at Nashville movie theaters including the Paramount, Tennessee, Loew’s, and Crescent theaters. These theaters would be desegregated by April 29, 1961.

On May 7, 1961, Diane Nash organized a new set of Freedom Riders from NSM to continue the Freedom Rides to Birmingham, Alabama. Despite the Freedom Riders’ failure to research New Orleans, Louisiana, NSM illustrated its crucial role in the Freedom Rides. NSM would continue their activism to desegregate other Nashville public accommodations until the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Bill that desegregated all public accommodations throughout the United States.