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Celebrating Black History Month #7

February 13 is the anniversary of the start of non-violent sit-ins designed to desegregate Nashville department store lunch counters. There had been earlier protests in Oklahoma City and on February 1, 1960, in Greensboro, North Carolina, which encouraged Nashville college students to pick up the cause.

Timeline for major events in Nashville in 1960:

Feb. 13, 1960: 124 students arrived at three Nashville stores, purchased items, sat at segregated lunch counters, and requested service. All were refused. They left peacefully after two hours.

Feb. 18: 200 students entered four stores, requested service at the lunch counters, which were promptly closed. Students left after thirty minutes.

Feb. 20, 1960: 350 students entered five stores, sat at the counters and requested service. Crowds of white youths gathered, police watched, but there was no violence. Students left after three hours.

During the next week, sit-in demonstrations spread to other cities and some violence resulted.

Feb. 27, 1960: Nashville students again sat in, requested service, and white mobs gathered, this time with no police present. Several students were attacked and beaten, one thrown down a flight of stairs. Through it all, the students remained completely quiet, passive, and non-violent. Police arrived, the mob dispersed with no arrests, and students were ordered to leave. They refused, and the arrests began. Eighty-one were jailed.

Over the next two months, further demonstrations took place. There were beatings, attacks, and more than 150 arrests of disciplined"onviolent demonstrators. All arrested students were convicted of disorderly conduct and fined $50, which they refused to pay. They served 33 days in the county workhouse.

April 19, 1960: Students' lawyer's house bombed, mostly destroyed, but attorney Z. Alexander Looby and his wife, sleeping in the bedroom, escaped unharmed.

April 20, 1960: Martin Luther King, Jr. gave a speech at Fisk University praising the students' efforts and techniques.

May 10, 1960: Downtown store lunch counters began to serve African Americans. Other restaurants, swimming pools, theaters, and public facilities were gradually integrated over a period of years.

During the Civil Rights struggles of the 1960s, demonstrators often invented and sang songs in the moment that fit the occasion. Here are two examples:

  • "The Busses Are a-Comin'": In a television interview in Nashville on February 7, 2010, discussing the student protests, beatings, arrests, and jail sentences, one of those arrested, former freedom rider Kwame Leo Lillard, said that he and others began singing this song while in jail. It warns the jailers that more busses, more freedom riders, more students, more demonstrators are coming and that they had better get ready because "We're gonna keep on coming." It was adapted to the tune of the Christmas Spiritual, "Mary Had a Baby."

  • "I'll Go to Jail if the Spirit Says Jail" : Another song that spontaneously sprang from the Civil Rights movement. Wherever students and leaders protested, they marched, sang, demonstrated against segregation, regardless of the risks, and many went to jail. Other verses were improvised to include "march," "sing," "shout," "vote," and "pray."