Explorations in Black Leadership

Co-Directed by Phyllis Leffler & Julian Bond

Jim Lawson and the Nashville Sit-ins

BOND: One other name I want to mention is Jim Lawson. Tell us about him.

LEWIS: Jim Lawson. Jim Lawson was an unbelievable human being. Born in Ohio. He was a pacifist. He studied Gandhi. He was part of the Methodist Student Movement. He lived in India. He became an organizer for FOR, the Fellowship of Reconciliation. He came South and started working in Nashville and later as a student at Vanderbilt. And it was Jim Lawson who started conducting the first non-violent workshop in Nashville in the fall of 1959.

BOND: A year before the sit-ins begin.

LEWIS: A year before the sit-ins in Greensboro. And Jim Lawson, even -- maybe even before the fall because we had test sit-ins in the fall in November and December 1959 in Nashville, so long before that time Jim had been conducting these non-violent workshops at a little Methodist church near Fisk University campus and every Tuesday night at 6:30 p.m., a small group of students from the different colleges and universities would meet and listen to Jim Lawson. He would discuss and debate the great religions of the world and then discuss the role of civil disobedience and he taught us what Gandhi attempted to do in South Africa, what he accomplished in India, and we started talking about Dr. King. We spent a great deal of time on Thoreau and civil disobedience. And finally, we were eager. We were eager students, but we had sort of -- just took all of this in.

We were ready to test some of this stuff that he was telling us. And the day came when a small group of black and white college students and some foreign students went downtown to one of the large department stores, and went in to the restaurant or the lunch counter, and took our seats, and which established the fact that this particular store, that the restaurant and the lunch counter would refuse to serve us. That's all we wanted to establish and we were denied service. We got up in an orderly fashion and left. And a few days later we went to another department store and did the same thing. The same thing happened. We got up and left. And we continued the non-violent workshop and then after the sit-ins started in Greensboro, North Carolina, we received a telephone call from a young Methodist minister in Greensboro, at least in North Carolina, who knew Jim Lawson and said, "Jim, what can the students in Nashville do to be supportive of students?" And Jim told him we were already having a non-violent workshop. We had two test sit-ins and we were ready. And we started sitting in on a regular basis.

BOND: You know, it almost sounds magical that Lawson is conducting these sit-ins, these test sit-ins in Nashville, while up in Greensboro, these four young men almost coincidentally on February 1st have their sit-in. And that sit-in in Greensboro sends a signal to young black people all over the South that you can do the same kind of thing. It just seems amazing to me that Nashville, Greensboro, these things are happening in isolation to each other -- you don't know about each other -- and all of a sudden, they all come together.

LEWIS: It is sort of strange and almost eerie for something like this to happen. I called it a spirit of history. Something is moving. People get caught up in something and it just -- it had to happen. The timing and everything just sort of came together. I think it was some force, some power. It was time. It was time.

I'll tell you one thing -- Martin Luther King, Jr. was so happy. He was so gratified when the young people started sitting in all across the South. He knew then that his method and his message of non-violence was beginning to catch on and spread around the South.