When I was 12, John Lewis Talked my Mom into Letting Me March with HimBreaking News
tags: civil rights, Nashville, John Lewis, Protest, SNCC
I was 12 years old when John Lewis took me on my first civil rights march.
Before Lewis became known nationally as a civil rights icon and a widely respected congressman, he became known around my family’s house in Nashville as one of the college students stirring up stuff to end racial segregation.
Because of Lewis, I got my first chance to protest my city’s and region’s racist policies and practices — from where we could eat, work, live, go to school, swim, party, play sports and even use the taxpayer-funded public restrooms.
I had been volunteering after school at a house near 21st Avenue North and Jefferson Street, where students gathered to ready themselves for the next march downtown. I was helping staple and paste posters. This would have been in late 1961 or early 1962. There was talk among the organizers one day about the next march. I went home and asked my mother if I could march. I told her the march would go right up Jefferson Street, the main road through black Nashville, as if she didn’t know already, adding that I would be okay.
For the thousands of college students who converged upon Nashville year-round, Jefferson Street was the place to be. It started at the campus of Tennessee A & I State University (now Tennessee State University) on the near west side of town. The march would stream along Jefferson’s retail merchants, dry cleaners, laundries, bars, grocery stores, nightclubs, beauty and barber shops, pass Fisk University and Meharry Medical College campuses, and then stream past churches and funeral homes as the marchers’ route made a right turn toward downtown.
Once downtown, there was McClellan’s Five & 10, Woolworth’s, S.H. Kress 5 and Dime, H.L. Green’s 5 & 10, stores with “whites-only” lunch counters. Along the way was the cluster of local government buildings. Collectively, all of those places were just three miles from Tennessee State’s campus, making the student march a brisk 30-minute walk.
The code of conduct for the marchers and their peers was to be neat and clean, to walk orderly, chant peacefully and remember violence was strictly prohibited regardless of circumstances. I did not know of the “sit-in” classes to prepare them for the potential abuse ahead. I would coin a phrase later to characterize what the marchers were hoping to do with their nonviolent assault on racism: kill it with kindness.