Civil Rights in Tennessee
The early gains for blacks during Reconstruction were lost during the decades that followed. Segregation, the threat of violence, poll taxes, and literacy tests discriminated against blacks in all spheres of life: economic, social, political, and educational. The fight to right these wrongs was waged by many brave Tennesseans.
Early civil rights victories in Tennessee included the 1905 successful boycott of Nashville’s segregated streetcars, and the creation of a competing black-owned streetcar company. In the 1920s in Chattanooga, blacks successfully defeated the Ku Klux Klan at the polls. Black institutions of learning persevered in educating young African Americans and developing a generation of leaders.
Following World War II, there was newfound energy in the fight for civil rights. Returning black servicemen who had fought for their country demanded greater equality, and the economic opportunities of the age raised the stakes of economic equality. In 1946, racially based violence targeted at a returned black serviceman in Columbia brought national attention to violence against black citizens and raised awareness of the need to protect blacks’ civil rights.
The Highlander Folk School, founded in Grundy County and later moved to Cocke County, was an important training center for community activists and civil rights leaders in the 1950s. Founder Miles Horton believed in popular education and sought to bring black and white activists together to share experiences. Many leaders in the national civil rights movement, including Rev. Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks, attended the folk school.
In the 1950s, the first steps toward public school desegregation took place in Tennessee. Following a lawsuit filed by black parents, Clinton desegregated its schools in 1956 on order of a federal court judge. The integration began peacefully, but outside agitators arrived to organize resistance and in the end Governor Clement was forced to call in 600 National Guardsman to diffuse the violent atmosphere. But the first black students were allowed to stay, and in May 1957 Bobby Cain became the first African American to graduate from an integrated public high school in the South.
In the fall of 1957 Nashville’s public schools were desegregated. As many as half of the white students stayed home in protest and one integrated school, Hattie Cotton School, was dynamited and partially destroyed. Other Tennessee cities desegregated at a slower pace and by 1960 only 169 of Tennessee’s almost 150,000 black children of school age attended integrated schools.
The Nashville lunch counter sit-ins of 1960 were an important milestone in both the local and national civil rights movements. Led by students from the city’s black universities, the sit-ins eventually forced an end to racial segregation of the city’s public services. Over two months hundreds of black students were arrested for sitting at white-only downtown lunch counters. Black consumers’ boycott of downtown stores put additional pressure on the business community. On April 19 thousands of protesters marched in silence to the courthouse to confront city officials and the next day Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. addressed Fisk University. On May 10, 1960, several downtown stores integrated their lunch counters and Nashville became the first major city in the South to begin desegregating its public facilities.
As the civil rights movement continued Tennesseans played an important part. Tennesseans were involved with organizing the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, and participated in the Freedom Rides, which sought to integrate buses across the south. In 1965 A. W. Willis Jr. of Memphis became the first African American representative elected to the state’s General Assembly in more than 60 years. Three years later, Memphis’s sanitation workers went on strike to protest discriminatory pay and work rules. Dr. King came to Memphis to support the striking workers. On April 4, 1968, King was assassinated by a sniper as he stood on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel in downtown Memphis.
© Susanna Henighan Potter from Moon Tennessee, 5th Edition