Monday, April 19, 2010

The law is going to be enforced in Nashville - Mayor Ben West, 50 years ago today

James Lawson is arrested for his role in student sit-ins
Photo by Vic Cooley, Nashville Banner
source: Nashville Public Library, Civil Rights Collection

Sit-in opponents framed themselves as defenders of the law

153 students arrested

One word was the tipping point: "Yes"

Fifty years ago today, on April 19, 1960, the civil rights paradigm started to shift for certain Nashville business owners: it became less about what it was within their right to do, and it became more about what it was right for them to do.

After 153 students had been arrested in Nashville sit-ins, city councilman and attorney Z. Alexander Looby had become their primary defender. On April 19, 1960, his home was bombed. Hours afterward, over three thousand protesters confronted Nashville Mayor Ben West on the steps of City Hall.  (A march tracing the footsteps of that 1960 march to City Hall is being held today.)

Up until April 19, 1960, the Nashville establishment had been focusing on the illegality of the sit-ins. United Press International reported that Mayor West had said in February of 1960 that he would permit no flouting of the law. In March, the Rev. James Lawson (in the photo above) had been dismissed from the Vanderbilt Divinity School for failure to "confine his activities within legal bounds." (It was a prominent theme of segregation and its enablers: sit-ins were wrong because they were illegal. In another April three years later, almost to the day, Martin Luther King, Jr. sat in jail in Birmingham, writing these words: "I had hoped that the white moderate would understand that law and order exist for the purpose of establishing justice.")

That's the background for the defiant statement by Mayor West on April 19, 1960, in the face of 3,500 protesters, that "As God is my helper, the law is going to be enforced in Nashville":
In Nashville, Tenn., some 3,500 students from Fisk University and other Negro schools marched on city hall in a stone-silent column half a mile long. Their grievance: the bombing that morning of the home of Lawyer Z. Alexander Looby, 62, one of the two Negro members of Nashville's city council, an attorney for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, and chief counsel for the 153 students who have been arrested in Nashville's rash of sit-in demonstrations. Said Councilman Looby after the bombing: "This won't stop me." Said redheaded Mayor Ben West to the well-behaved crowd: "As God is my helper, the law is going to be enforced in Nashville."
But at the same time, Diane Nash pushed Nashville over a tipping point when she asked Mayor West whether the status quo should be changed:
Diane Nash confronted West.

She asked, "Mayor, do you recommend that the lunch counters be desegregated?"

West hesitated briefly. "Yes," he answered.
The lunch counters in Nashville desegregated soon thereafter.

Business owners abandoned the position that they were right to do whatever they could behind cover of the law. They ended up doing something better.

That started 50 years ago today in Nashville.

Mayor Ben West agrees that lunch counters should be desegregated, April 19, 1960
Photo by Vic Cooley, Nashville Banner
source: Nashville Public Library, Civil Rights Collection

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