Tag Archives: nashville

Gandhi, Nonviolence, and the Civil Rights Movement

18 Apr

A recent NPR story covered Mohandas Gandhi’s early career and activism in South Africa. Gandhi originally went to South Africa to work as a lawyer but it was his experience with the segregated and racist system of apartheid that galvanized him into political action. He returned to India after twenty years with the methods of nonviolent protest that eventually would free India from colonial rule. Gandhi’s methods were later employed by the civil rights movement in the segregated South and were introduced, in large part, by Eyes on the Prize interviewee James Lawson.

Interview with James Lawson - Eyes on the Prize

Interview with James Lawson – Eyes on the Prize

Lawson had an interest in Gandhi’s life and work as a college student but it was when he traveled to Nagpur, India as a Methodist missionary that he became more interested employing the practice and principles of nonviolent resistance.

When Lawson returned to the States, Martin Luther King, Jr. asked him to come to the South and work with him in the civil rights movement. Lawson began studying at the Divinity School at Vanderbilt University and at the same time he began conducting nonviolence training workshops for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC).

Lawson spoke about these workshops in Nashville where he trained students and others who went on to be leaders in the movement, including Diane Nash, James Bevel, Bernard Lafayette, and C.T. Vivian.

This series was a sort of protracted series and we met weekly for much of September, October, November. And in that we tried to give people a very, a fairly, good view of nonviolence and we mixed that with role-playing of various kinds, and we mixed it with experiments they were to play, to carry out in their own personal lives. And then we also added to it the first series of forages into downtown to test which restaurants we would decide to work on and so, as I recall in November, everyone who attended the workshop was given the experience of going to an actual restaurant and sitting in…that was a part of our planning. So the workshops, role-playing, was often realistic. That is that we would set up confrontations in workshops where a person might get slapped or hit or knocked down and we would experiment, you know, we would help the person walk through how do you respond to this kind of hostile situation. So the role-playing was a part of it.

Lawson’s training and techniques for non-violent strategies were featured in Ain’t Scared of Your Jails (1960-1961), an episode that covered the student sit-in movement in Nashville. Some of the students in this campaign went on to found the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and played major roles in the Freedom Rides, Freedom Summer, and many other episodes.

The influence of the Nashville Movement was great, perhaps more so than any other single movement, with the exception of the Montgomery boycott. The reason for that was that we, as King said, we were a model movement. And we combined strategizing with learning and experimentation and struggle. We did not stop with the sit-in of 1960, we moved to theaters, we moved to bus station, train station, barber shop, we moved to mop up other restaurants in the community so for, a decade at least after 1960, that movement was continuing to be a very dynamic movement setting the pace all across the South for change. Then, in 1961, we determined that the violence in Alabama could not stop the Freedom Ride. So we immediately called Martin King and others and said we’re going to continue the ride from Anniston, Alabama to Birmingham and to Montgomery. 

Lawson went on to talk about how nonviolence is not a passive acceptance of a situation. He described nonviolence as a type of moral jiu-jitsu and how it was a practical strategy as well as an ethical issue,

I am faced with a hostile assailant who wants to break up the march and who wants to do me in. What do I do? Well, my practice has been to obey Jesus at that point, turn the other cheek. Well, people say, “Well, that’s passive,” but it’s not passive. Psychologically, it is an extreme weapon. I turn the other cheek. Now, it’s true the assailant may then sock me on that cheek as well. But it may also happen that the assailant does something else, that he is upset that instead of my using the fist against him I turn the other cheek. I have actually seen this happen in the midst of our desegregation of–in the Nashville movement, the desegregation of theaters, I was at the back of the march because at the back of the march the rabble-rousers would gather and throw Coke bottles at us, spit on us, and hit and kick as we would be moving away from the theaters back to the church. So I accosted a young man who was doing this. I was at the very last rank, and I would try to turn around and I, face him as often as I could. He was cussing me out. I turned once and I said to him, “Did your church teach you to talk like this?” He said, “They taught us segregation, though.” But I said, “Did they teach you to hit and spit and kick and cuss other human beings?” And he acted as though I was hitting him over the head with my fist. He stopped. I turned around to find where I was to keep moving in the right direction. I turned back around and he had disappeared through the crowd, and I never saw him again in theater demonstrations. So nonviolence does what Richard Gregg said, wrote rather. It causes people to be engaged in moral jiu-jitsu. They expect from you the hostile response that is conventional. They don’t get that; they get respect and they get resistance, and that turns them upside down. It is like the art of jiu-jitsu where you use the opponent’s strength against himself. He rushes at you, and instead of you putting up your resistance to stop him, you let him rush and you stick your foot out in front of him as he rushes by, so the nonviolence has that same practical capacity.

 All quotes from: —Interview with James Lawson conducted by Blackside, Inc. on December 2, 1985, for Eyes on the Prize: America’s Civil Rights Years (1954-1965). Washington University Libraries, Film and Media Archive, Henry Hampton Collection.


Will Campbell, civil rights activist and minister, dies at 88

6 Jun

Image from Interview with Reverend Will Campbell, conducted by Blackside, Inc. on November 3, 1985, for Eyes on the Prize: America's Civil Rights Years (1954-1965)

Reverend Will D. Campbell, an unconventional minister at odds with his native segregated South, has died at age 88. Campbell, the son of a farmer, was born in Mississippi and became an ordained minister when he was 17.  He served in the Army during World War II, and went on to attend various universities including Tulane University and Yale Divinity School.

His pastoral career was derailed by his opposition of segregation and his dedication to civil rights. A position as University Chaplain at the University of Mississippi ended with death threats towards Campbell because of his views. According to John Lewis, Campbell was fired because he played ping-pong with an African American janitor.

After leaving the University of Mississippi, Campbell moved to Nashville. From then on, he was involved in almost every major campaign in the civil rights movement, beginning with the student sit-ins in Nashville, the Little Rock school integration crisis in 1957, the Freedom Rides, the March from Selma to Montgomery, and many others. Campbell was also invited by Martin Luther King, Jr. to attend the founding of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.

Campbell was interviewed for the Blackside’s landmark series on the  civil right movement, Eyes on the Prize. In his interview he talked about the events surrounding the sit-ins in Nashville,

Mr. Z. Alexander Looby, who was a great man, a black attorney, conservative politically, a Lincoln Republican of many years–no  one could accuse him of being a, a wild eyed radical politically–and when his house was bombed or dynamited, I think it, it solidified especially the black community, and it enraged a segment of the white community in a fashion that nothing else had.There was the mass march to City Hall and there was a white Mayor who came out there and who with considerable prodding from that brilliant and beautiful leader named Diane Nash, who kept pushing him, “But, Mr. Mayor, you are our Mayor. Sir, do you think that segregation is morally defendable?” And he eventually had to say, I do not. Now that, in my judgment, was the turning point. That encounter was a turning point.

Interview with Reverend Will Campbell, conducted by Blackside, Inc. on November 3, 1985, for Eyes on the Prize: America’s Civil Rights Years (1954-1965). Washington University Libraries, Film and Media Archive, Henry Hampton Collection.

Campbell went on to be involved in the protests against the Vietnam War. He also was the author of several books, including a memoir, Brother to a Dragonfly (1977) which was a National Book Award Finalist.

Ella Baker and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee

15 Feb
Ella Baker

Ella Baker

Ella Baker was a civil rights activist who helped found and organize the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). Her name is not as well-known as many of the other leaders of the civil rights movement but she played a pivotal role in many organizations and campaigns from the 1940s onward. Born in 1903 in Norfolk, Virginia. Ella Baker had a long history of working as an organizer and activist before founding SNCC in 1960. She worked for the NAACP in the 1940s and then with the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) founded in part by Martin Luther King, Jr. beginning in 1957. Then in the spring of 1960 a wave of student protests began, starting with a group of students who refused to leave a Woolworth’s lunch counter in Greensboro, North Carolina on February 1, 1960. Similar protests began occurring in Nashville, Tennessee led by students from local university’s including Fisk University.

Ain’t Scared of Your Jails (1960-1961) was the third episode of  Eyes on the Prize and had a segment on these student protests. Many of the interviewees were organizers and members of SNCC including Diane Nash, Robert Moses and John Lewis. In her interview for Eyes on the Prize, Diane Nash talked specifically about Ella Baker, Baker’s importance for SNCC, and how she empowered the students to take the lead with the protests,

Ella Baker was very important to giving direction to the student movement at that particular point. And not giving direction in a way of her making decisions, as to what the students ought to do, but in terms of really seeing how important it was to recognize the fact that the students should set the, the goals and directions, and maintain control of the student movement. So, she was there in terms of offering rich experience of her own, and advice, and helping patch things up when they needed to be patched up. She was very important to me, personally, for several reasons. Number one, I was just beginning to learn, during that period of time, how everyone, particularly people who were older than we were, had other motives for their participation. Motives other than simply achieving freedom. There were people involved who worked with civil rights organizations who were very concerned about their organization’s image, and perpetuating their organization, who were concerned about fund-raising, and who would make decisions and take positions, based on those concerns, even at the expense, sometime, of actually gaining desegregation, such as the students were trying to do. And that was a very energy-draining thing for me, sometimes. And I didn’t—I remember a couple of times when things had happened that really bothered me, that I didn’t totally understand. I never had to worry about where Ella Baker was coming from. She was a very honest person, and she was—she would speak her mind honestly. She was a person that I turned to frequently who could emotionally pick me back up and dust me off. And she would say things, like, “Well, so-and-so is concerned about his fund-raising, maybe that’s why he took,”—and it would make things click, and fall into place, and she was just tremendously helpful, to me personally, and also to SNCC. I think she was constantly aware of the fact that the differences that the students had were probably not as important as the similarities that we had, in terms of what we were trying to do. So, very often, she was the person who was able to make us see, and work together. I think her participation as a person some years older than we, could really serve as a model of how older people can give energy and help to younger people, at the same time, not take over and tell them what to do, really strengthen them as individuals and also strengthen—she strengthened our organization.

Interview with Diane Nash, conducted by Blackside, Inc. on November 12, 1985, for Eyes on the Prize: America’s Civil Rights Years (1954-1965). Washington University Libraries, Film and Media Archive, Henry Hampton Collection.

Baker has been quoted as saying, “strong people don’t need strong leaders,” and SNCC’s philosophy was to empower both the students and the most oppressed members of the communities to decide what action they were going to take themselves, rather than rely on directives or orders from the leaders of the movement. Ella Baker was undoubtedly a leader and mentor to many people but her way of leading was to empower others to take action and direct their own campaigns and actions.

The complete collection of full length transcripts from Eyes on the Prize are available online.

More resources for Ella Baker can be found at the Ella Baker Center, and an oral history interview with Ella Baker, conducted by  former SNCC members Casey Hayden and Sue Thrasher, is available online in audio and transcript form at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s project, Documenting the American South.