The movie The Butler raised this question among a multitude of Nashvillians: Why doesn’t Nashville have a museum recognizing and honoring the contributions of Nashville in the Civil Rights Movement? Why do you have to go to other cities like Memphis, Birmingham, Montgomery, and Selma to see Nashville’s profound involvement in making civil rights available for everyone? Nashville’s involvement in the Civil Rights Movement, especially in initiating sit-ins, is even highlighted in a segment of the documentary, Eyes on the Prize.
Nashville can boast of being one of the major centers responsible for evoking social change with the involvement of four major Historic Black Colleges and Universities (Tennessee State University, Fisk University, Meharry Medical College, and American Baptist Seminary). Nashville provided outstanding luminaries during the Civil Rights Movement, including ministers, lawyers, educators, and students. The hard work and dedication from some of Nashville’s own seems to go virtually diluted and sometimes hidden from the young benefactors here in our city. With such a wealth of history and sweat taking place here, it seems a travesty of injustice that there is no major venue highlighting the legacy of those sacrificing their lives for social change.
I see it as nothing short of a slap in the face especially, for those heroes who are still visible reminders of courage in our community. Basically, I’m alluding to the Freedom Riders who were put out of school. They were unselfishly willing to sacrifice their lives to fight for equality for all people. There were prominent ministers (such as Rev. Kelly Miller Smith, Sr.) who used their churches and spoke out against injustice, often suffering backlash and repercussions from the majority White controlled political structure at the time. The ultimate sacrifice for a heavy weight civil rights organizer, i.e., Rev. James Lawson, was expulsion from his job at Vanderbilt University because of his involvement in the movement.
There were Black lawyers advocating and fighting to eliminate this nationwide practice of apartheid, which was more apparent and blatant in the South. Special admiration and respect should also be given to the vigilant and heroic lawyer/Councilman Z. Alexander Looby—whose home was bombed for his activism and involvement in representing sit-in demonstrators who were jailed.
However, without questions, the main heroes were the students from the universities and high schools who bravely paved the way by utilizing nonviolent protest. We are talking about students who voluntarily participated in nonviolent workshops where they were trained to refrain from retaliating for verbal and physical abuse inflicted on them by their adversaries. Special recognition should be given to the students attending universities in Nashville who diligently led the sit-ins, making it possible that restaurant counters served all people—regardless of color.
Many of the young people in Nashville are unaware of the heroic and courageous efforts of many of our elders who they may see daily, who helped make it possible for Black children to enjoy some of the liberties and privileges they now take for granted. It is ironic that Nashville has not done enough to educate the city or the world by offering a museum or venue for the entire world to see and truly honor the contributions made by those in Nashville. Until this wrong is made right and those involved in the Civil Rights Movement in Nashville are permanently and visibly immortalized here, there should remain a cloud of shame hanging over the heads of those inactive in correcting this injustice. Anything short of a museum honoring these luminaries is unacceptable. It is a debt we owe to Nashville, and it should be honored as quickly as possible. If we build it, the world will come. It can also add financially to the city, promoting tourism. It’s a no brainer.