Remembering our elders: John Lewis recalls the Nashville sit-ins

The late John Lewis speaks at a meeting of the American Society of Newspaper Editors in 1964. (Photo by Marion S. Trikosko via the Library of Congress.)

John Lewis — the organizer, leader, and congressman revered for his role in the Civil Rights Movement — passed away on Friday, July 17, 2020. Lewis was at the epicenter of many of the Black freedom movement's most pivotal moments: the lunch-counter sit-ins of 1960; the Freedom Rides aimed at desegregating buses; the 1963 March on Washington, where he delivered a fiery (and much-edited) speech as chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee; and the famous Selma to Montgomery march in 1965. He was a founding board member of the Institute for Southern Studies, the publisher of Facing South. 

Lewis' journey into full-time movement activism began in 1960, when he helped lead a wave of sit-ins at lunch counters in Nashville, Tennessee – an experience that would deeply shape his views on the power of coordinated, nonviolent action to bring about change in even the most hostile political environments. Below, we republish a 1980 interview with Lewis, conducted by Institute for Southern Studies and Southern Exposure staffers Jim Sessions and Sue Thrasher, in which he recalls his role in helping organize the Nashville sit-ins as a college student when he was barely 20 years old.

The interview first appeared in the book "Growing Up Southern," published in 1981 by Southern Exposure, the print forerunner to Facing South. It was republished in part in Southern Exposure's spring 1981 issue, "Stayed on Freedom," which commemorated 25 years of the Movement. The issue's introduction, written by activist Pat Bryant, contains wisdom that stretches across the decades:

"In a naïve yet profound belief in the capacity of Americans to rise above their historical handicaps, the Freedom Movement made visible the raw division between black and white societies, and with compelling force, it made the country choose between snarling dogs and singing marchers. Today, the gains of the most recent phase of our Movement — the last 25 years — are in jeopardy … We are now called upon today to defend freedom and confront savagery in whatever new forms it takes: We must not take one step backwards, but must build on the strengths and insights of the Freedom Movement with a more tough-minded analysis and more far-reaching goals."

Here is Lewis's interview as it appeared in Southern Exposure.

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In the winter of 1960, the nation was mesmerized by a group of young black college students in Nashville, Tennessee, who appeared at a segregated lunch counter one Saturday afternoon and asked to be served. All that spring, they filled the jails and the nation with their freedom songs, sparking similar actions and demonstrations across the South. Although an earlier sit-in had been held in Greensboro, North Carolina, on February 1, 1960, it was the small coterie of Nashville students who gave impetus to the concept of nonviolent direct action and who continued through the years to provide critical leadership to SNCC, SCLC, CORE, and the Movement in cities throughout the nation. Among those students who had been meeting for months discussing the religious, ethical and tactical basis of nonviolent civil disobedience were Jim Lawson, Diane Nash, James Bevel, Bernard Lafayette, Marion Barry and John Lewis … Lewis, who was chairman of SNCC for several years and then director of the Voter Education Project, now works for the National Consumer Cooperative Bank.

The Movement during that period, in my estimation, was the finest example, if you want to refer to it, of Christian love. Sometimes we'd sit for two or three hours. We'd have our books and we'd just sit quietly, doing our homework. Then someone might walk up and hit us or spit on us or do something, but it was very quiet. When I look back on that particular period in Nashville, the discipline, the dedication and the commitment to nonviolence was unbelievable.

Two or three times a week we would go and sit in. And then one particular day — it must have been leap year, because I think it was February 29, 1960, a Saturday morning — we met in Kelly's Church, and Will Campbell* came to the meeting to tell us he had received information that the police officials would have us arrested and would let all types of violence occur. Kelly came to the church and warned there would be violence. But we said we had to go. We were afraid, but we felt that we had to bear witness. So Jim Lawson and some of the others were very sympathetic and felt that if we wanted to go that we should.

It was my responsibility to print some rules, some "dos and don'ts," what people were supposed to do: sit up straight; don't look back; if someone hits you, smile; things like that. At the end it said something like, "Remember the teachings of Jesus Christ, Ghandi and Martin Luther King: may God be with you." We gave them all to those people that Saturday morning.

Woolworth's was the place where the first violence occurred. A young student at Fisk, Maxine Walker, and an exchange student named Paul LePrad were sitting at the counter at Woolworth's. This young white man came up and hit Paul and knocked him down and hit the young lady. Then all types of violence started. Pulling people, pushing people over the counter, throwing things, grinding out cigarettes on people, pouring ketchup in their hair, that type of thing. Then the cops moved in and started arresting people. That was my first time, the first time for most of us, to be arrested. I just felt … that it was like being involved in a Holy Crusade. I really felt that what we were doing was so in keeping with the Christian faith. You know, we didn't welcome arrest. We didn't want to go to jail. But it became … a moving spirit. Something just sort of came over us and consumed us. And we started singing "We Shall Overcome," and later we started singing "Paul and Silas bound in jail, had no money for their bail …" It became a religious experience that took place in jail. I remember that very, very well, that first arrest.

Even after we were taken to jail, there was a spirit there, something you witness, I guess, during a Southern Baptist revival. I think our faith was renewed. Jail in a sense became the way toward conversion, was the act of baptism, was the process of baptism.

I was afraid. I was afraid.

You know, during the workshops in Nashville, we never thought or heard that much about what would happen to us personally or individually. And we never really directed our feelings of hostility toward the opposition. I think most of the people that came through those early days saw the opposition — and saw ourselves, really, the participants in the Movement — as victims of the system. And we wanted to change the system. People just felt something was wrong.

The underlying philosophy was the whole idea of redemptive suffering — suffering that in itself might help to redeem the larger society. We talked in terms of our goal, our dream, being the beloved community, the open society, the society that is at peace with itself, where you forget about race and color and see people as human beings. We dealt a great deal with the question of the means and ends. If we wanted to create the beloved community, then the methods must be those of love and peace. So somehow the ends must be caught up in the means. And I think people understood that.

In the black church, ministers have a tendency to compare the plight of black people with the children of Israel. I think we saw ourselves as being caught up in some type of holy crusade, with the music and the mass meetings, with nothing on our side but a dream and just daring faith … I tell you the truth, I really felt that I was part of a crusade. There was something righteous about it.

I really felt that the people who were in the Movement — and this may be short-sighted and biased on my part — were the only truly integrated society and, in a sense, the only true church in America. Because you had a community of believers, people who really believed. They were committed to a faith.

I was wrong, I think, to feel that way, because you shouldn't become so definitive as to believe that you have an edge on the truth. I think you have to stay open. But, you know, in the process of growing and developing, people go through different experiences.

* "Kelly's church" was the First Baptist Church, pastored by Kelly Miller Smith, the president of the Nashville Christian Leadership Council. Will Campbell was then working with the National Council of Churches in Nashville.