Explorations in Black Leadership

Co-Directed by Phyllis Leffler & Julian Bond

The Discipline of Non-Violence

BOND: At the same time, non-violence is not a normal human reaction. If someone hits you, bam -- your first response, hit them back. How did you and the others in the Nashville movement and in the larger movement beyond, how did you overcome this very human impulse to strike back?

LEWIS: Well, when you look at the philosophy and the discipline of non-violence, for many of us as individuals of faith, it was in keeping with our teaching that it is better to love than to hate. It is better to be able to forgive and look at your fellow man or your fellow human being as your brother and as your sister. So we weren't out to destroy a person. We were out to change that person. So --

You know, in Nashville perhaps more than any other place, we had what we called role playing. We had social drama. We would get a group of black students and white students and sometimes the blacks would play the role of whites and the whites would play the role of blacks and sometime we would be on an interracial team. And we went through drills and we would pretend that we were pouring water on people, and we did actually pour water on people, not very hot water. It might be we were spitting at them, and I remember Bernard Layafette, we would take a cigarette or a cigar and then take the smoke and blow it into someone's face, and then he would use the "N" word, call the people, you know, you nigger lover and just call them all -- and they have to sit there and take it, but that was part of discipline. And some people said, you know, "I cannot do this. I cannot take it." But we had a hard core group of black and white students and young ministers that were prepared, in Nashville during those early years, to die.

BOND: Now, the Nashville student is unique in many different ways. First, that it had this interracial component because you had these exchange students going to Fisk. Secondly, that you had this deep training in non-violence, which most people in the rest of the movement didn't. I remember when we sat in in Atlanta, they just said, "Don't hit back." That was it, but at the same time, despite the deep training and grounding you had and these drills you'd been through, in almost all of the movement, acceptance of non-violence for the participants was almost immediate. How do you account for that?

LEWIS: There was this unbelievable sense of "I don't want to do anything to mess up. I don't want to do anything to embarrass the movement." Just part of a cause. And there were people saying, you know, "I want to try to do it. If I cannot do it, I'll get off the stool. I'll leave. I just won't go down. I'll make a picket sign, I'll drive people to the scene, to the church, to the point to be picked up and taken downtown," but it was this unbelievable effort.

Now, in Nashville I think some of the young people grew to accept non-violence, not simply as a technique or as a tactic, but as a way of life, as a way of living. And then there was others who accepted it just for during the time they were participating in the movement, but in the process, I think some grew to adhere to non-violence more and more so as a way of life, as a way of living.

We had little what we called do's and don'ts, similar to what was said in Atlanta during the Atlanta movement. But we had little things like "do sit up straight," "do not lie afoul," "do not talk back," "obey your leader," and then near the end, it says something like "remember the teaching of Jesus, Gandhi, Thoreau, and Martin Luther King, Jr." At the end, it said, "May God bless you." And that day when we had the mass arrests, on February 27th, 1960, eighty-nine of us got arrested and every single student had a copy of their do's and don'ts.

BOND: Really? You know what strikes me as a remarkable is that so far as I know in all of the sit-ins, in all of the places all over the South, there's not a single example of a sit-in person striking back. And there's plenty of provocation -- the spitting, the cursing, the yelling, the pushing, the shoving, the ketchup on your hair. How do you account for this -- what is an alien philosophy to many -- catching on and holding on so strong, including people who didn't have this background that you had in Nashville?

LEWIS: It's something, I guess, that's very hard and maybe almost impossible to explain, but I think people became anchored in something. They became committed and dedicated. You've seen this unbelievable photograph. I think it's from a city in Jackson, Mississippi --

BOND: Yes.

LEWIS: -- when Joan Trumpauer and someone is sitting in I think from Tupelo or the city near Nashville, a young white student, exchange student at Fisk named Paul Laprad is sitting in, and these white men come up and pull him off the lunch counter stool and just beat him, just hit him over and over again, and you just sort of catch his head, but he never, never struck back. And I think that was part of the discipline, that people who really believed, they really wanted to make this effort succeed. And I think that's why we succeeded because you saw the image, this unbelievable image of these well-dressed college students sitting in in an orderly, peaceful, non-violent fashion. On many occasions, they were just looking straight ahead, waiting to be served, maybe reading a book, working on a paper, and then someone would come up, spit on them, put a lighted cigarette out in their hair or down their back or pour hot water or coffee on them. And I think there was a contrast and I think what changed things. It appealed to the conscience of the American people.