In this video segment from the American Experience: "Freedom Riders" Web site, view newsreel footage, interviews, and archival photos to explore how students in Nashville, Tennessee, prepared for civil rights protests by training in the techniques of nonviolent direct action. This training prepared them for several initial efforts focused on the Nashville community and made them ideal reinforcements when attacks by white mobs decimated the ranks of the first Freedom Riders in 1961.
Democracy in Action Study Guide (Document)
College students in Nashville, Tennessee, who wished to challenge illegal discrimination against African Americans found an ideal mentor in James Lawson. A member of both the Fellowship of Reconciliation (the oldest pacifist organization in the United States) and the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) since his freshman year in college, Lawson had declared himself a conscientious objector to the Korean War and served 14 months in prison rather than seek military deferments. Lawson had also traveled to India as a Methodist missionary upon his release, where his pacifism was reinforced by studying the techniques of satyagraha or "soul force," popularized by the late Mahatma Gandhi. After returning to Oberlin College for graduate studies in theology, Lawson met Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who encouraged the young student to bring his skills to the South.
Lawson transferred to the Divinity School at Nashville's Vanderbilt University in 1958, where he became the Southern director of both the Fellowship and CORE and began mentoring black students at Fisk and other area universities. In the fall of 1959, together with pastor Kelly Miller Smith, Lawson began leading workshops in nonviolence in the basement of Smith's First Baptist Church. In addition to role-playing nonviolent direct action and hearing from veterans of earlier civil rights efforts, students were taught to avoid responding to violence with more violence through such techniques as avoidance of eye contact, refusing to talk back, and assuming a fetal position to minimize physical injury. Students learned the underlying philosophy of fighting evil rather than individuals, of seeking an opponent's understanding rather than humiliation, and of responding to violence with an ethic of love.
The Nashville students acted within two weeks of the first sit-ins in Greensboro, North Carolina. On February 13, 1960, 100 demonstrators from four of the area's colleges staged sit-ins at downtown lunch counters. City officials—eager to preserve Nashville's reputation as a forward-thinking "Athens of the South" that had already desegregated public schools and city buses—allowed the sit-ins to continue for two weeks, but ultimately arrested the protesters and subjected several to beatings. Sixty-two of those arrested chose to serve jail sentences rather than pay fines for violating discriminatory laws. After the home of a prominent African American attorney was bombed, thousands of demonstrators marched on City Hall on April 20, a confrontation that led Mayor Ben West to publicly declare that discrimination against African Americans was wrong.
While the Nashville students were inspired by student-led sit-ins in Wichita, Oklahoma City, and Greensboro, they were the first to couple local efforts with a national vision. The students were instrumental in founding the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) in April 1960, and in providing the replacements necessary to continue the original Freedom Rides a year later. James Lawson, whom Vanderbilt had expelled for his civil rights efforts, has remained a leading proponent of nonviolent direct resistance to this day. In recent years, he has frequently been jailed in protests related to payment of a living wage, racial profiling by law enforcement officials, and the rights of immigrants and gay and lesbian people. In 1968, Martin Luther King Jr. described Lawson as "the leading theorist and strategist of nonviolence in the world."
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