Interview with Rev. James Lawson


Rev. James Lawson:

Well, I suppose the picture of Nashville that most motivated me then, and still does, occurred in the mouth of a black woman who in the midst of a workshop in Nashville in the early part of 1959, perhaps March of '59, a workshop in which we were describing what the issues are facing us today, what the problems are, and what can be done about these. This woman, who I shall never forget, said, "You men don't really know what life is like in segregation. We are the ones who shop. When we go into downtown Nashville. There is no place that we can stop with dignity and rest our feet. There are no restrooms that are marked, are not marked either ‘Colored' period or ‘Colored Ladies.' There's no place that one could sit down and have a cup of coffee. So as we do your shopping for you, you're in, often times in your own offices and the like, but we're the ones who bear the brunt of the racism of the segregation in Nashville." Then she went on to describe the fact that in one large department store, there was a very beautiful children's area, where mothers with their children could stop and their children could play on nice swings and sit on animals, in animal-shaped seats, and the mothers could have a cup of tea or coffee or cold drink while they relaxed for a few moments before they went on and finished their business. But that that wasn't available to a single black mother or to black children. Now, I was not born in the South, of course. I grew up in Ohio. But even there, I would have insisted that I did not know what my own mother or sisters with their families faced as they moved around doing the work of the family: the shopping, the caring for the rest of us and the like. So Nashville, for even the black middle class, teaching in all-black schools, working in an all-black hospital, could be very insulated from the insult and the put-down that went on for those people who worked in the department stores or in the downtown area and those then who did, who were the shoppers and the clients of the downtown.