Nashville — On front line for social justice, then and now

Bone, McAllester, Norton PLLC hosted their 17th annual Fellowship Breakfast on January 15. The venue for this Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday event was the historical Woolworth on 5th. Previously occupied by a Dollar General until 2015, the building has come full circle. The interior has been fully restored, appearing to be a vision of the 1960s—a vision of the past that is hauntingly painful for some, while a source of righteous strength for others. Given current events in the media, it’s a vision that is clearer today than it has been in many years.

The speakers included Mayor Megan Barry, Dr. Reavis L. Mitchell, Mr. Barry Scott, and Dr. Ernest ‘Rip’ Patton. Mayor Barry spoke passionately, echoing Dr. King, about combating racism and hate with love and compassion.

“The wider we open our arms, the stronger we become,” Barry said.

She appropriately reminded us that Woolworth was the very setting of the Nashville sit-ins of the 1960s. The first place John Lewis was arrested during the civil right movement for combating civil injustice. It has been 58 years of progress since the sit-ins, yet we still have work to do towards, “building a country and a Nashville we’re proud of,” according to Barry.

Dr. Reavis L. Mitchell, an authority on Nashville and Fisk University history, impressed upon the audience Fisk’s impact on the Civil Rights Movement and how instrumental the Movement was in influencing Fisk’s students. Fisk’s students have always been on the front line, leading the charge of the non-violent, peaceful protests.

Barry Scott, actor, writer, producer, director, motivational speaker, and voice-over artist recited excerpts of Dr. King’s speeches. He is the founder of The American Negro Playwright Theater. Scott certainly captured the audience with his bravado, remarking: “As our country has become more diverse, it has become more divided.” While impressing upon us the notion that hope is always on the horizon, he said: “True peace is not the absence of tension, but the presence of justice.”

Dr. Ernest ‘Rip’ Patton, a member of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) at the young age of 21. He participated in the Nashville sit-ins to protest segregation. Patton recounted his time fighting against injustice during the Civil Rights Movement and working closely with Civil Rights heroes, John Lewis and Diane Nash. He learned about non-violence directly under the tutelage of Dr. King here in Nashville. Patton told of being present for Dr. King’s speaking engagement in the Fisk University Gymnasium, unyielding and unafraid in the face of the three bomb threats targeted at the historical event.

These impressive speakers all carried with them a vibrant flicker of the flame that Dr. King ignited in them and all around the country decades ago. Their words could not help but resonate with the captivated audience gathered in Woolworth on 5th. Their collective message was more than ceremonially honoring Dr. King’s legacy. It was a rally call, appropriate given the history of the location, to take action now. Action that will combat today’s civil injustices that unfortunately, not only still exist but are rampant in many locations in our world.