Season 6, Episode 4
February 13, 2022
Theme: Nonviolent Resistance
“Do not strike back or curse if abused. Do not laugh out. Do not hold conversations with the floor walker. Do not leave your seat until your leader has given you permission to do so. Do not block entrances to stores outside nor the aisles inside. Do show yourself courteous and friendly at all times. Do sit straight; always face the counter. Do report all serious incidents to your leader. Do refer information seekers to your leader in a polite manner. Remember the teachings of Jesus, Gandhi, Martin Luther King. Love and nonviolence is the way.”
This is the code of conduct written and followed by student activists in Nashville who organized a series of sit-ins beginning February 13 and lasting until May 10 of 1960. I find it to be a powerful statement of intent, a thorough exploration of these activists’ plans and strategy. It begins with a list of prohibitions that encourage its adherents to be silent, to be unmoved by what is around them. Then it goes further: not only should you be resolute in your commitment, but you should be courteous and friendly. In a land of Christian hypocrites hateful to their fellow human beings, be the kind of figure that Jesus preached about being.
I likely don’t need to explain segregation to anyone reading or listening to this show in 2022. Yet if you’re like me, you don’t know much more about the sit-in movement than the basics: a group of people sat at lunch counters where they were harassed and assaulted, and eventually segregation was illegal. The reality, as always, is much more complex. This nearly three-month display of nonviolent resistance wasn’t just people showing up at a Woolworth’s for lunch: it was years in the making, connected to actions and decisions made long before February 13, and ultimately affecting the rest of the Civil Rights movement.
So let’s go back a few years, to the founding of the Nashville Christian Leadership Council in 1958 by Reverend Kelly Miller Smith. That March, the NCLC organized a series of workshops focused on nonviolent resistance, which many students from local universities attended. During these workshops, they decided to focus these lessons on desegregating downtown lunch counters. The first step they took was to meet with two different department store owners, asking them to voluntarily serve Black people at their counters. The owners declined. Before launching a large-scale demonstration, additional reconnaissance was made that fall. This involved a handful council members purchasing items and attempting to order food, just to get a sense of how employees and shoppers would respond.
The full-scale sit-ins began February 13, 1960 and lasted nearly three months. Within three weeks, the mayor appointed a bi-racial committee to figure out how to solve the racial tensions in the city. As is often the case with official committees, it recommended a half measure: desegregating only a portion of the lunch counters, allowing a whites-only section to remain. Student activists, none of whom had been members of the committee, rejected this proposal and resumed their resistance. While the sit-ins continued, protest leaders secretly negotiated with store owners to allow a controlled desegregation: store owners would be notified on the days that Black diners would sit at the counter; in return, the staff would be told to serve those diners without issue. Eventually, the controls were lifted, leading Nashville to become the first major city in the United States to begin desegregating their public facilities.
I’ve skipped over a lot, especially details about the violence and hateful response by members of Nashville’s white community. I have done so in part for brevity, but more so because this is not their story. This is Black History Month, and the stories we should tell are about the human beings who worked together in a variety of spaces and formats to resist dehumanization, subjugation, violence and evil. It is that collaboration I want us to focus on. A lady didn’t choose to stay seated on the bus because she was tired; she did so as part of a coordinated effort to desegregate the Montgomery bus lines. So too we see that the Nashville sit-ins were a deliberate, planned display of nonviolent resistance. To go further on this Valentine’s Day eve: nonviolent resistance is facing true danger with one’s head held high. It is sitting straight, facing forward. It is love in action, and it is the theme for episode 4 of Community Radio.
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