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Jackson, Tennessee students campaign for U.S. civil rights, 1960-1961
In the United States of America, the 1950s saw the emergence of key individuals in the building of the civil rights movement. The struggle for African Americans against their country’s institutionalized racism was highlighted by moments like Rosa Parks’ refusal to give up her seat on a segregated bus in Montgomery, Alabama. A preacher by the name of Martin Luther King, Jr., spoke of nonviolence in his people’s fight for equality. But at the turn of the decade, the civil rights movement trended a different way. February 1, 1960 a group of African American students sat at a white-only lunch counter in Greensboro, North Carolina in a nonviolent protest of private-sector segregation (see “Greensboro, NC, students sit-in for U.S. Civil Rights, 1960”). Students across the South began embodying what they had seen leaders like Parks and King demonstrate over the last ten years. Lane College students of Jackson, Tennessee were one such group.
During the spring semester, the drama unfolding in Greensboro was being talked about around the Lane College campus. Summer break soon began, and as the Lane students returned to their homes, the city of Nashville, Tennessee became the first city to begin desegregating public facilities. With these two major events, plans for protests in Jackson began to form when the Lane students arrived at school again. The college’s chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and planning chairman Richard Burdine facilitated a lot of the ideas on campus. Students came to a consensus that bus desegregation would be a good place to start, considering 80% of riders were black. A senior at Lane, Arthur David, remarked, “We found that there was no law regarding seating on the bus. It was just tradition.” Plans were set in motion when Student Movement Association mentor Albert Porter, along with other Lane faculty began training students who were interested in bus boycotts in nonviolent action.
On October 13, 1960, three students boarded a bus on the Hays Avenue route and sat down towards the front of the bus. The driver immediately asked them to move to the back, and after the three refused, he called the police. The students were arrested. The same thing happened to three more students on the North Royal Street Route, and they too were arrested for disorderly conduct and “threatened breach of peace.” Burdine was among the nine arrested, along with fellow NAACP leader and Student Movement Association president Henry Nichols. “We knew it was time. Something had to be done. We had paid our fare and thought we had a right to sit up front,” Burdine said following the arrests. Nichols would later go on to publish an ad in The Jackson Sun outlining the racial inequalities in Tennessee entitled “An appeal for Freedom and Rights and Dignity. GOD Knows No Color Lines.”
In the meantime, however, news of the arrests spread and Lane’s auditorium began to fill up with outraged members of the black community in Jackson. Soon there were 400 people gathered, having shown up without any prompting. A group of black businessmen decided to pay the student’s bonds and five hours later they were released from jail. The students were proud of the stand they had taken, and clearly they had earned the support of the black community. A dialogue began between the groups and a large-scale boycott was organized. On the morning of October 14 the boycott began, with community members carpooling to work and students picketing outside of Woolworth’s, a local diner. Three white pickets stood across the street, holding a sign that read “If You Don’t Want To Ride Our Buses, Then Walk.” By October 15 the boycott was over. As the students had expected, the absence of black riders had dramatic effects. A letter was released from the manager of the Jackson City Lines, Inc. declaring that the company would no longer show signs of seating discrimination. Immediately following, Mayor Quinton Edmonds announced the decision to integrate the town’s buses, and police chief J.R. Gaba pledged his support.
By October 27, however, the next campaign by the Lane students was already underway. On that day five members of Lane’s Student Movement Association sat down at the white-only lunch counter at Woolworth’s. When employees immediately closed down the counter the students remained seated, reading books and the Bible for nearly 3 hours. Like the bus sit-ins, few students were directly involved in this second campaign. But over one hundred spectators watched from outside Woolworth’s as a group of white youth dragged the students out of the restaurant. In the process, the students endured verbal assaults, had rotten eggs thrown at them, and were sprayed with bug spray. A block away five other students had sat down at the counter at McLellan’s, the waitress responding, “We don’t serve y’all.” The manager of McLellan’s proceeded to call the police and the students were arrested.
The arrests perpetuated a campus-wide effort to desegregate the lunch counters. Students went to the lunch counters daily and marched outside on the sidewalks. Each student had agreed to a collection of principals on nonviolent action. So when the other customers spat at the students and hit them with tulip bulbs and milkshakes, the students ignored the harassment. Police typically would not interfere with the violent behavior being inflicted on the students. But when they did step in, it was almost always the students being arrested. A popular strategy in the South was to sign a “pauper’s oath,” meaning you were not able to pay the jail fine. Lane students mimicked this strategy in hopes of drawing attention by filling the jails. A more structured opposition came when Jackson government officials joined a group called the Federation for Constitutional Government and placed ads in The Jackson Sun that supported segregation and the “Southern way of life.”
The ads weren’t an unusual element, however, as most newspapers and radios remained ultra-conservative and aired little in the case of the civil rights movement. Instead, news of the student’s actions had to be spread by word of mouth. The Colored Methodist Episcopal Church (CME) supplied an important function in this way. Lane College happened to be founded by the CME so it was natural for it to become a center of organization for the campaign. Pastors emerged as community leaders and meetings held at various black churches were attended by hundreds of residents. In the same way the surrounding black community supported the bus boycotts did they support the sit-ins. Older blacks had to be cautious of their outward involvement because support of the campaign could put their jobs in jeopardy. Even a few white people reached out to the students, eventually forming a civic league working across racial divides for equality. With all this support, as students had to return to their homes for winter break, locals carried on the pickets. Both Woolworth’s and McLellan’s began to close the lunch counter for long periods of time, but did not integrate fully until the passage of the Civil Rights Bill of 1964.