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Last night the bus pulled into the Drury Inn in Middletown, Ohio. We have officially left the South, but it also feels like we have traveled forward in time. Eight days ago we entered the world of the Civil Rights Movement in the years between 1954 and 1968. Time travel, of course, is impossible, but this week we have come as close as possible to the kind of historical empathy I demand of all of my students. The world we entered eight days ago was a world of segregation, Jim Crow, and brutal violence against African Americans. It was also a world of hope, resistance, non-violence, and Christian faith.
Yesterday afternoon our tour leaders popped Raoul Peck’s powerful James Baldwin documentary I Am Not Your Negro into the bus DVD player. As I listened and watched I was keenly aware of the distance between the movement in Greensboro, Selma, Montgomery, Albany, and Birmingham and the more radical civil rights voices of the latter and post-King years. In some cases nonviolence gave way to violence; hope gave way to bitterness; and Christian faith gave way to skepticism. Historians can debate the degree to which these changes took place, but they definitely took place. Baldwin complicates the narrative in ways that make white people uncomfortable.
On Saturday we spent most of the day in Nashville, Tennessee. When white Americans think about Nashville they think about country music, but the Civil Rights Movement has a very rich history in the Music City.
We began the day at the Civil Rights Room of the Nashville Public Library—the only place in the city where the Civil Rights Movement is interpreted. When we walked into this amazing room we met Rip Patton, a Nashville resident who participated in the city’s lunch counter sit-ins and Freedom Rides during the Winter and Spring of 1960. Patton walked us through the history of the movement as he experienced it. He was involved in integrating lunch counters throughout the city and was jailed as part of the second wave of freedom riders in May 1960. Here is Patton on The Oprah Winfrey Show:
The Civil Rights Movement in Nashville was split evenly between white and black activists. The African-American part of the movement was led by a group of students and ministers associated with American Baptist Theological Seminary. As Patton described how James Lawson, John Lewis, Bernard Lafayette, and James Bevel ended up in Nashville he spoke in terms that could only be described as providential. These men came to Nashville, with a recommendation from Martin Luther King, to train for the Christian ministry. Patton continued his providential language when he described how Diane Nash left Howard University after her freshman year and came to Fisk University.
Training in non-violent resistance began in Nashville in 1959. Since the movement was led by clergymen and clergymen-in-training, it took on a spiritual character. Patton said that the students were trained to ask “what would Jesus do?” when faced with difficult choices. During severe moments of violence and discrimination they were taught to “remove” themselves from the situation through prayer and singing. Patton’s Civil Rights Movement was a spiritual movement, affirming the argument made by historian David Chappell in his excellent Stone of Hope: Prophetic Religion and the Death of Jim Crow. Since so many ministers were in jail during the Freedom Rides, Patton said, “we always had church.” He added, “We read the Bible a lot and prayed.” Patton appealed to three Bible verses to explain why he participated in the movement. They were Romans 12:2 (“And be not conformed to this world: but be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind…); Isaiah 6:8 (“Whom shall I send, and who will go for us? Then said I, Here am I; send me.”); and Psalm 23.
After Patton spoke and answered questions, Kwame Lillard, another Nashville participant in the movement, led us on a walking tour of Civil Rights sites in Nashville. Lillard trained students in non-violent methods of protest and handled much of the administrative tasks for the sit-ins and freedom rides. In recent years he has served as a Nashville city councilman.
Lillard’s civil rights journey was a little different than the one experienced by his friend Rip Patton. Lillard was more open about discussing structural racism, telling us several times that “We took down the ‘white only sign,’ but we didn’t take down the ‘white only mind.'” He was more willing to talk about violence and describe the battle for civil rights as a “war.” (At Fisk University, Lillard spoke somewhat approvingly of an incident in which African-American students dragged a member of the white administration down the stairs in order to remove him from power and secure African-American leadership at the university. I have been trying to find this story online, but have come-up empty so far. If anyone can point me to a source I would appreciate it). Lillard was the first person we met on this tour to talk extensively about Black Lives Matter and mention Malcolm X.
At lunch I invited Lillard to sit with my family in a booth at Swetts, one of Nashville’s great soul food restaurants and a place often frequented by those in the movement. Here I got to learn more about his story. After playing his pivotal role in the Nashville movement in 1959-1960, Lillard moved to New York City to pursue graduate work at Hunter College. While in New York he was influenced by the militant teachings of Malcolm X. He described the shift from the non-violent approach of the Nashville movement to the more militant approach of Malcolm X as “difficult,” but he appreciated Malcolm X’s efforts at connecting his vision to similar fights for racial justice around the world. “I learned a lot,” Lillard told me, “and realized that there was a lot going on in Africa and other places.” Lillard even had a chance to meet Malcolm X at his New York apartment. Though he did not say it, I imagine that Lillard returned to Nashville in the mid-1970s with a different take on how to deal with race issues in the city. It was fascinating to listen to him describe his intellectual journey.
During our tour Lillard took us to the Walgreen’s Drug Store on 5th Avenue North. It was the site of student sit-ins in 1960 and is the oldest Walgreen’s store still operating in its original location. (The lunch counter was removed). We also visited Fisk University and Nashville National Cemetery where we saw the grave markers of the “colored troops” who fought for the Union at the Civil War Battle of Nashville. On our final stop, Lillard took us to meet Vernon Winfrey at the barber shop he has owned for over fifty years. Oh yeah, did I mention Vernon is Oprah’s father?
As the tour winds down I am left wondering again about usable pasts. Using the past to promote present-day agendas is always problematic, but I wonder if the Civil Rights Movement of Juanita Jones Abernathy, Rutha Mae Harris, Carol McKinstry, and Rip Patton provide the best way forward. Or does a more militant and radical approach, like the one associated with Malcolm X, James Baldwin, or Kwame Lillard offer the best way forward as we seek to foster racial reconciliation in our communities. Perhaps a little bit of both.
As I have written before, I am taking this tour with several colleagues from Messiah College. The Provost’s Office and Office of Diversity Affairs funded our trip as part of the college’s commitment to racial reconciliation. At various points during the trip we were asked to appear on camera and reflect on “what we were feeling” or “describe our emotions.” The assumption, of course, is that we will be moved to make contributions to race relations on our campus.
I am not a big fan of expressing my feelings or talking about emotions as it relates to the way I approach the past, but I think it is fair to say that I am leaving this trip inspired by the Christian and non-violent approach to Civil Rights promoted by Martin Luther King, James Abernathy, Fred Shuttlesworth, John Lewis, the Greensboro Four, and many, many others. As some you know, Messiah College is a Christian college with Anabaptist roots. Like Rip Patton, we try to approach social issues from the perspective of Christian faith. As an Anabaptist school we privilege non-violence. Frankly, I can’t think of a more usable past than the one provided for us by these Civil Rights leaders. So I continue to wonder: is there is a place for a religiously skeptical, militant, and angry approach to race relations at a Christian college? Something to think about. I need to keep reading,
Today is our last stop. It is in Canton, Ohio. Stay tuned. Here are a couple more pics: