Congressman John Lewis, attorney Fred D. Gray share experiences of Nashville sit-ins with LJS students, community leaders

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The past met the future yesterday in a powerful way.

Nearly 60 years ago, a group of Nashville students “sat down” to stand up for change during the Civil Rights Movement by sitting at segregated lunch counters in the city. Their refusal to move sometimes led to their arrest. People would often pour coffee on protesters or spray insect repellant at them, and threats and beatings were common.

But ultimately, their actions led to change — and their impact continues today.

On Dec. 4, Lipscomb University’s Fred D. Gray Institute for Law, Justice & Society, housed in the College of Leadership & Public Service, recognized the impact that young people can have on society as it brought together those who have impacted society in the past to share their experiences with the next generation of students who will play key roles in their communities in the future.  

gray dinner_3The Fred D. Gray Institute hosted a series of events to honor civil rights leaders from the past and to support Lipscomb University’s program that is preparing the next generation of students who will make an impact on their communities and bring about societal change.

“The institute is home to an undergraduate major that focuses on socio-legal issues in order to encourage critical thinking, good writing and a passion for justice,” said Randy Spivey, academic director of the Fred D. Gray Institute. “Through this program, students, faculty and mentors examine how law and society work together and how justice is built in the midst of that. So we designed this day to show our students, and those who support the work of this institute, the impact that can be made on society and how we are training future generations to do just that.”

Congressman John Lewis, U.S. representative for Georgia’s 5th Congressional District, and famed civil rights attorney Fred D. Gray shared their experiences in a student forum in Stowe Hall on the afternoon of Dec. 4.

Lewis, who joined the forum via Skype from his office in Washington, D.C., and Gray, discussed the Nashville sit-ins and their experiences during the Civil Rights Movement.

“I appreciate the hard work of Fred Gray,” said Lewis, who was arrested during the lunch counter protests. “He is such a humble and honorable human being. Through his work and through his persistence for a non-violent revolution, he used the law as a tactic to change and influence people around the world. He inspires all of us to do what we can in a lawful, peaceful, non-violent fashion.”

Gray represented Lewis when he was arrested during the Nashville sit-ins. He was also Martin Luther King Jr.’s first civil rights attorney and has a legal career that now spans over 62 years and who has been at the forefront of changing the social fabric of America through desegregation and constitutional law cases.

“I am delighted that I decided to become a lawyer,” said Gray. “What I wanted to do was to take the law, and change the law, and end the segregation laws that existed at that time so that all Americans would be able to enjoy that activity. So, I used the legal aspect and the courts to bring about change.”

Lewis said Gray had a great influence on him.

gray dinner_217“What I did, I tried to do in a peaceful, loving and non-violent fashion in keeping with the teachings of Jesus,” Lewis recalled. “But when things happened, it was Fred Gray who defended us. He had a great sense of faith that he instilled in all of us. He taught us that when you see something and it’s not right, not fair, not just – to speak up. And sometimes by saying something or speaking up, you’ll get into trouble. But your faith will see you through.”

Later in the evening, the Fred D. Gray Institute hosted a special gathering in Nashville’s new Woolworth on 5th event venue, which restored the Woolworth Building, site of lunch counter sit-ins in the 1960s. The reception and program is the first event at the site, which is slated to officially open in early 2018.

On Feb. 13, 1960, students, including Lewis, from Fisk University, American Baptist Theological University and Tennessee State University entered Kress, Woolworth and McClellan stores at 12:40 p.m. After making purchases, the students sat at the lunch counters. Two hours later, the owners closed the counters without serving any of the students. According to media accounts at the time, store owners claimed that it was a “moral right” to decide whom they would or would not serve. During the next three months the sit-ins continued, not only at the three stores initially targeted but also at the Greyhound and Trailways bus terminals, a Grant’s retail store, a Walgreens drugstore and major Nashville department stores Cain-Sloan and Harveys.

Woolworth on 5th provided a fitting backdrop for an evening to celebrate the work of the institute named for Gray last year.

“While Lewis and others affected change with public marches in the streets, attorney Fred Gray marched to the courthouse to secure civil rights through the court system,” said Spivey. “The Fred D. Gray Institute for Law, Justice & Society is committed to continuing the conversation that celebrates our common history of triumph, grace and love, while also confessing our historical failures.”

Over the past year, Lipscomb’s College of Leadership & Public Service, has continued that conversation with community discussions on transit, free legal clinics, a law camp for local high school students, and by educating graduate and undergraduate students to serve the needs of our diverse, growing community. Additionally, the College led citywide conversations about equity and race in support of a mayoral initiative, and continues to lead key entities in the city and state through difficult cultural and organizational issues.

In attendance were several participants in the Woolworth lunch counter sit-ins including Frankie Henry and Rip Patton. As they entered the renovated facility, they recalled memories of the sit-ins and other events they participated in during the Civil Rights Movement in Nashville. They, along with Rev. Edwin Sanders, community leader and founder of the Metropolitan Interdenominational Church in Nashville, shared their experiences in a panel discussion hosted by Dwight Lewis, former Tennessean editorial page editor.

Lewis also joined in the evening’s celebration by offering his reflections via Skype as he awaited a call to vote on the tax bill that has made headlines in recent days.

gray dinner_1“I was touched by the spirit of history to get involved,” said Lewis. He shared a story from his childhood that, “Taught me to be patient, taught me never to give up.”

When he was arrested at the sit-in protests, Lewis said, “I felt free.”

“I felt liberated,” he said. “I felt like I had crossed over, and I have not looked back since. And were it not for the city of Nashville, I don’t know what would have happened to me. I ‘grew up’ sitting on those lunch counter stools.”

Lewis encouraged those in the audience to get involved in their communities. “Register to vote. Run for office. Speak up and speak out,” Lewis said. “I believe we can get it right.”

The future was recognized during the evening’s activities as the first recipients of the newly established Fred D. Gray Scholarship were honored. Christian MonyeiMorgan MurphyKatherine ClimacoPaulina Martinez and Abena Tawiah are the inaugural Fred D. Gray Scholars. (Read more about the 2017-18 Fred Gray Scholars.)

““The scholarship has honestly been a huge deal for me because not many people can say their words resonated with the lawyer who represented Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King,” said Monyei. “I was handpicked with four of my peers to be recipients of the first Fred D. Gray Institute for Law, Justice & Society Scholarship ever. I am highly appreciative of this opportunity and I will forever keep Fred D. Gray's dream of equality alive as long as I am breathing. His efforts and accomplishments will not be in vein.” 

Gray concluded the evening with words of encouragement for the Gray Scholars and everyone gathered for the celebration.

“What I say to all of us, the young and the old, those of us whose sun is setting and those of you whose sun is just beginning to rise, you have a tremendous opportunity,” Gray admonished. “Take advantage of that opportunity. You are going to have some setbacks. You are going to have some failures. But don’t stop. Keep going. Even at 86, I have not stopped. I don’t have the caseload that I once had. But I’m working as hard now as I did then, and it’s because the struggle continues. It’s up to you.”

Sponsors of the event include Bone McAllester Norton PLLC, the Tuskegee History Center, Leadership Tennessee, Sherrard Roe Voight & Harbison, 12 South Dental Studio and Waller.

Want to know more? Visit ljs.lipscomb.edu.

—Photos by Kristi Jones; Video by Josh Shaw