Interview with John Lewis


John Lewis:

Yes, I think we were prepared in, in Nashville—no, Nashville, at the time, was considered a sort of the citadel of education in the, in the south—with all of the colleges and all of the universities there, and many, many churches—sort of progressive liberal. There was a very active, social action committee at one of the local black Baptist churches. And at the same time, the pastor of this church, the Reverend Kelly Miller Smith, was the local president of the Nashville Christian Leadership Council, an arm of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference—had an effort going. So every Tuesday night for an entire semester in 1959 we had, what we call, nonviolent workshop, direct action workshop, where we discussed and debated the theory, the philosophy of Gandhi, the teaching of Gandhi, the whole question of civil disobedience, the whole history of the struggle in India, and the attempt on the part of Gandhi to bring about some resolution of the problems in, in South Africa. But the point came, rather I guess halfway through the workshop in late November and early December of ‘59, to have a few test sit-ins. So we organized a delegation of, of young people, primarily students, white students, black students, international students primarily from Africa, and from some of the Latin American countries. We went down to two of the large department stores and occupied the lunch counter seats, went into restaurants, occupied seats at tables, and we were told that we could not be served because there were blacks in the group. This established a case that the City of Nashville was segregated, that they refused to serve black people. We continued the, the workshop, but when we returned during the early part of 1960, we did receive a call from a young minister by the name of Douglas Moore—this was after the Greensboro sit-ins of February 1st, 1960—saying, "What can the students in Nashville do to support the students of North Carolina?" And I guess that's—was the message, that was the question that we needed, and we were ready. We had ready to be involved, to organize mass sit-ins or sit-down demonstration in Nashville. So in a matter of two or three days we organized during the month of February, what we call "T" days and Saturday, a sit-in. On most of the college campuses in, in Nashville Tuesdays and Thursdays were light days for classes and Saturday, for the most part, was a free day. We had on that first day over 500 students together in front of Fisk University chapel, to be transported downtown to the First Baptist Church, to be organized into small groups to go down to sit-in at the lunch counters. We went in…


Speed 3.

John Lewis:

We went into the local stores, for the most part, the five and ten, Woolworth, Kreske's, McClellans. These stores were known all across the South and for the most part all across the country. We took our seats in a very orderly, peaceful fashion. The students were dressed like they were on the way to, to church or going to a big social affair. But they had their books, and we stayed there at the lunch counter studying and preparing our homework because we were denied service. The manager ordered that the lunch counters be closed, that the restaurants be closed, and we'd just sit there, and we continued to sit all day long. The first day nothing in term of violence or any disorder, nothing happened. ** This continued for a few more days and it continued day in and day out. And finally, on one Saturday when we had about 100 students prepare to go down, it was a very beautiful day in Nashville, very beautiful day, we got a call from a local white minister who had been a real supporter of the movement. He said that if we go down on this particular day he understand that the police would stand to the side and let a group of white hoodlums and thugs come in and beat people up, and then we would be arrested. And we should make a decision of whether we wanted to go or not, and some people tried to discourage us from going on that particular Saturday. We made a decision to go, and we all went to the same store. It was Woolworth in downtown Nashville, in the heart of the downtown area, and occupied every seat at the lunch counter, every seat in the restaurant, and it did happen. A group of young white men came in and they start pulling and, and beating primarily the young women, putting lighted cigarettes down their backs, in their hair and really beating people. And in a short time police officials came in and placed all of us under arrest, and not a single member of the white group, the people that were opposing our sit-in down at the lunch counter, were arrested. We all left out of that store singing "We Shall Overcome." This was the first arrest in the, in the Nashville sit-in. It was the first mass arrest, I think, anyplace in the South. I believe it was February the 27th, 1960. And…