Civil Rights / Cold War
CRCW Diane Nash 02 CT Vivian CRCW Diane Nash 04 Singing at Highlander CRCW Diane Nash 03 Students in Jail CRCW Diane Nash 01 on cover of Jet

Who were some of the Nashville students?

Diane Nash
Diane Nash from Chicago had come to Nashville to attend Fisk University in the fall of 1959. She went to the Tennessee State Fair that fall and was shocked to see “whites only” signs at the restrooms. She said it was as if someone “had slapped her in the face.” 

She heard that a local minister (Jim Lawson) was holding workshops to try and challenge local segregation laws. Nash was a eager participant. 

Others were impressed with her, so that by February 1960, she was serving as one of two student leaders. Nash participated in the sit-ins and was arrested. 

One day while acting as the contact person during a sit-in, Nash was recognized by some young white men who said “she’s the one to get.” She managed to slip away in the crowd. Frightened badly, she sat down on the curb gasping for air. Nash said she realized that she had to conquer her fear or drop out of the movement.

She was a leader, and she couldn’t ask people to do things that she was afraid to do. She decided that the sit-ins were probably the most important thing she would ever do in her life. She would not turn back. It was Nash who asked the crucial question of Mayor Ben West that helped end lunch counter segregation in Nashville.

Later she took part in the Freedom Rides and in voter registration drives in the deep South.
For more information about Diane Nash, here. 

C.T. Vivian
C.T. Vivian was a minister and a student at American Baptist College in Nashville. He held down two full-time jobs in order to support his family while attending school. He had a fiery temper, and seemed to be the most likely one to provoke a confrontation. 

In the fall of 1956, after the Montgomery bus boycott had won, Vivian boarded a Nashville city bus and sat down in the front. The driver ordered Vivian to the back of the bus. When he wouldn't move, the driver drove the bus to the police station. The Nashville policemen were not sure what to do about it. Finally someone called city hall and was told that blacks no longer had to sit in the back of the bus. The police ended up driving Vivian home. 

During the Freedom Rides, Vivian was arrested in Mississippi. While being interrogated by the police, they told him to use “sir” in his answers. Vivian refused to do so, so the police would hit him after every answer. Eventually he was bleeding so badly, that the police had to stop questioning him and called a doctor in to treat him.
For more information about C.T. Vivian, click here. 

James Bevel
James Bevel came to Nashville to attend American Baptist College in 1957. Bevel was friends with two other American Baptist students, John Lewis and Bernard Lafayette. He wasn’t as interested as they were in social gospel, but he had a car. Sometimes he would drop them off at First Baptist and then go read at the Nashville Public Library until they were through. 

At the library he began reading about Gandhi since Lewis was so impressed with him. Bevel dis-cover-ed that he too was impressed with Gandhi. He also became impressed with Jim Lawson. Bevel became an active member of the sit-in protesters.

When Bevel was not arrested on February 27, John Lewis said Bevel was unhappy he wasn’t. So Bevel organizes a group to target the lunch counters at the bus stations and was arrested along with 62 other people. “Classic Jim Bevel" Lewis said, "And, of course, he did wind up leading that group to the bus station, and then into jail. Now he was with us all the way.”

Bevel later became involved in the Freedom Rides and voter registration drives. Bevel was with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. during the sanitation workers strike in Memphis where King was killed.
For more information about James Bevel, click here.  

Bernard Lafayette
Like many other students at American Baptist, Bernard Lafayette came from a poor family. He had the opportunity to go to a larger school, Florida A&M, but turned it down for American Baptist. He said he felt called to preach.

In Nashville, Lafayette worked as a janitor for the school, a dishwasher at a downtown restaurant, and a gardener for several black and white families in order to make ends meet. John Lewis, his friend, talked him into going with him to Lawson’s workshops. 

Lafayette had doubts whether or not he could follow non-violence principles. He wasn’t sure he could keep himself from fighting back if attacked. And if he didn’t fight back, he was afraid people would think he was a coward.

Then one Saturday as the students were leaving First Baptist to walk to a sit-in, a group of young whites attacked the last student in line, Solomon Gort. They knocked him down and started kicking him. Almost without an thought, Lafayette threw his body on top of Gort to try and take some of the blows. Just like they had practiced at the workshops.

The whites then started kicking Lafayette. Jim Lawson calmly walked over. One of the whites turned and spat at him. Lawson asked the guy for a handkerchief. The guy then handed Lawson his handkerchief. As Lawson wiped the spit off, he asked the guy, who was wearing a motorcycle jacket, if he had a motorcycle or a hot rod car.  When the guy said yes, Lawson asked him if he had fixed it up. Before long, the guy was explaining to Lawson how he had customized his bike. Gort and Lafayette, now ignored by the white men, got up and started walking away. Lawson finished the conversation and then also walked away. The white guys just stood and stared at them. 

Lafayette no longer had any doubts about non-violence tactics. He became a believer. Later Lafayette led a group of Freedom Riders to Birmingham.  He participated in voter registration drives, and was at the march on Selma. When Martin Luther King Jr. was killed in Memphis, Lafayette was working on the poor people’s march on Washington that King was planning.  

Lafayette later became an educator, and in 1992, was named the president of American Baptist College.
For more information about Lafayette, click here.  

Curtis Murphy
Curtis Murphy grew up on a farm in Hardeman County in West Tennessee. Times were hard for the Murphy family, and his father, Buck, often had to leave his family and work around the state as a construction worker in order to bring in more money.
Curtis was bright, and his father sent him to live with relatives in Memphis so he could go to a better high school. When he decided to go to school at Tennessee A&I, his father had already saved enough money to pay the $1,000-a-year tuition for all four years.
In early 1960, Curtis went to non-violent workshops almost as a joke. But he was impressed by James Lawson and quickly became a sit-in participant. He tried to keep this from his father, but his sister, a freshman at A&I, became worried and told their parents. 
Buck Murphy came to Nashville the next day. “You’re crazy,” he told his son. “They’re never going to let you do these things…they’ll kill you first.”
When Curtis was arrested, Buck came back to Nashville to pay his bail. The father and son talked again. Buck again told him that he was worried that Curtis would be kicked out of school. 
Then later Curtis heard from his family back in Hardeman County that a white man had asked Buck how “his jailbird son” was doing. Buck Murphy said his son was doing fine, and “Wherever he is, I am too.” Curtis realized that his father had accepted his actions and was proud of him.
Curtis later became a teacher in the Chicago school system and then served as an assistant principal. Buck Murphy managed to increase his land holdings and became one of the most successful black men in the county.

Picture Credits:
  • Nashville sit-in leader Diane Nash is featured on the June 29, 1961 cover of Jet magazine.  The headline says "Coed Who Gave up College To Fight For Rights."  Tennessee State Museum Collection, 2009.83
  • Photograph of C.T. Vivian taken by Jack Corn in Nashville on April 1, 1960.  Courtesy of The Tennessean.
  • O.D. Hunt and Dennis Foote (l-r), both Tennessee A&I students, watch as John Lewis (right), an American Baptist Theological seminary student, talks to reporters after they were arrested and put in jail for a sit-in demonstration on March 25, 1960.  Photo by Jimmy Ellis, courtesy of The Tennessean
  • Guy Carawan plays a guitar and sings with Nashville students Bernard Lafayette (middle) and James Bevel at Highlander School in 1960.  Photograph taken by Thorsten Horton.  Photo courtesy of Guy and Candie Carawan at the Knoxville News Sentinel Photo Galleries
  • Pop-up photograph of Diane Nash, National Archives and Records Administration

   Civil Rights / Cold War >>  Civil Rights Movement >>  Nashville Sit-Ins >>  Why Sit-Ins?

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