On this dayFeb 13, 1960

Nashville Students Launch Protest; Face Violence and Jail Time

Lacy Atkins/The Tennessean

In February 1960, hundreds of volunteers—primarily Black college students—huddled into the basement of First Baptist Church in Nashville, Tennessee, for what became the first mass meeting of the sit-in movement. The students planned a series of sit-ins designed to challenge racial segregation at lunch counters.

On February 13, 1960, 500 students from Nashville’s four Black colleges—Fisk University, Tennessee State, Meharry Medical, and the Baptist Seminary—filed into the downtown stores to request service at segregated establishments. White merchants refused to serve the Black students and petitioned the police to arrest them for “trespassing” and “disorderly conduct.” On February 26, the chief of police warned student demonstrators that their “grace period” was over and threatened legal retaliation. The demonstrators were not dissuaded.

The next morning, scores of students marched downtown silently to stage sit-ins at their designated stores. As they passed, white teenagers gathered to scream racial epithets and hurl rocks and lit cigarettes at them. Instead of intervening to prevent the assaults and harassment, police arrested 77 African American student demonstrators and five white students who had joined their protest.

The 82 arrested activists were tried and convicted in a consolidated one-day trial on February 29. Afterward, they were given a “choice” between jail time and a monetary fine. A 22-year-old Fisk University student named Diane Nash informed the judge that 14 of the convicted demonstrators had chosen jail. Standing in open court, she explained that paying the fine “would be contributing to and supporting the injustice and immoral practices that have been performed in the arrest and conviction of the defendants.” Ms. Nash’s speech persuaded more than 60 of the convicted demonstrators to change their minds and also serve jail time rather than pay the fine.

The sight of dozens of Black college students being carted off to jail convinced the mayor of Nashville to release the students and appoint a biracial committee to make recommendations for desegregating downtown stores. The success of the Nashville sit-ins quickly made them a model for other segregated Southern communities to emulate. By the end of February, sit-in campaigns were underway in 31 Southern cities across eight states.

As a result of her persistence and bravery, Diane Nash emerged as a civil rights leader. She joined the Freedom Rides in 1961 and helped achieve the desegregation of interstate buses and facilities.

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