By Patricia Bates
NASHVILLE, TN — In a night of ovations, U.S. Rep. John Lewis recalled on Dec. 4 how as a young man called to become a pastor here at American Baptist College, he instead answered as a protestor in the Nashville Student Movement, and eventually became a preeminent politician as the “Conscience of Congress.”
Lewis was the special live video guest at an “An Evening with The Fred D. Gray Institute for Law, Justice & Society” at the new Woolworth on 5th restaurant during this fundraiser by Lipscomb University. Gray was honored, as were the inaugural five scholars of his namesake program—Christian Monyei, Morgan Murphy, Paulina Martinez, Katherine Climaco, and Abena Tawiah—before a crowd of VIPs. With former reporter Dwight Lewis of The Tennessean as moderator, a panel including Nashville sit-ins activist Frankie Henry also described their experiences. The McCrary Sisters sang spirituals, such as “On Freedom’s Highway.”
Standing up against racism for blacks like Congressman Lewis did in the 1960s meant sitting down in Nashville at whites-only lunch counters. The first of Lewis’ more than 40 arrests for “good trouble” came on Feb. 27, 1960, at this former dime store, now Woolworth on 5th, when he refused—like Rosa Parks did on a city bus in Montgomery, Ala.,—to leave his seat. After training in the passive resistance of Jesus and Gandhi during meetings here at Clark United Methodist Church, Lewis was escorted with 82 others to what’s now Metro Jail.
“They would pour hot coffee on us, and they put out cigarettes in my hair,” said Lewis, of those days in 1960 spent at Woolworth, McClellan’s, S.H. Kress, and other retailers. Yet, when Lewis was behind steel bars, “I felt liberated, I felt free,” he said. Lewis encouraged young people here to keep reaching out in tolerance toward a “beloved community.”
Civil Rights came from the wrongs of that era in Nashville, which students at Lipscomb University now learn about at The Fred D. Gray Institute through textbook law cases. Gray represented Parks once she was booked on Dec. 5, 1959, during the Montgomery Bus Boycott, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., around his nonviolent protests, and Lewis.
Desegregation came on May 10, 1960, for Nashvillians through Lewis and others at dining establishments downtown. A historic landmark, Woolworth on 5th will open in mid-January as a “welcome table” for everyone for Southern roots-themed music and food just blocks from the National Museum of African American Music. Lipscomb University was given special approval Dec. 4 to host the “An Evening With…” as it was under construction.
Lipscomb University has expanded its minority student population from three percent to 23 percent in over a decade, said its President Randy Lowry here. “The challenge for us now is educating them for the world in which they will go,” he added. “That for us is cross-cultural.”
While enrolled at the all-black Nashville Christian Institute (NCI)—which was incorporated in 1967 into Lipscomb University—Gray shined shoes from 1943-1947 in The Arcade across from Woolworth to pay for his tuition and costs while becoming a minister. Ultimately, Gray felt led by God to become an attorney, who still goes into the office at age 87 to practice every workday.
“Fred Gray had every reason to leave Alabama, but he stayed during the Civil Rights Movement,” said Academic Director Randy Spivey of The Fred D. Gray Institute for Law, Justice & Society. “I’m astounded by stories like his of those who chose to stay rooted in their communities despite their obstacles.”
“For those of us whose sun is setting…or beginning to rise on your life,” Gray counseled the wide-ranging audience of youth to elderly here: “Don’t stop. Keep going…” We still need leaders to fight against bias and bigotry from Congress to the White House, he said, “to make plans, execute them, and not leave the details to others.”