King, Nashville, and Nonviolent
Direct Action

Civil rights leaders gathered on the grounds of Fisk University to embark on a journey for racial justice in 1960

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Photo by Bettmann Collection/Getty Images

On Wednesday, April 20th, 1960, Martin Luther King, Jr. was scheduled to address the Fisk University community about the ongoing and intense nonviolent student movement to desegregate lunch counters in downtown Nashville, Tennessee. King’s address at Fisk was organized by the Nashville Christian Leadership Council (NCLC, a civil rights organization created in early 1958 by Rev. Kelly Miller Smith, Jr.

 

The day of the address was tense. The Fisk University Gymnasium was searched several times in response to constant rumors of bomb threats. The program was scheduled to begin at 7 p.m. but was delayed for more than an hour when another anonymous bomb threat required the evacuation of the thousands already seated inside.

 

With all attendees evacuated, firefighters marched in and combed through every inch of the gym. Then the audience filed back into each section in high spirits, singing “Onward Christian Soldiers.” This popular hymn sung by activists in the South symbolized just how much the ongoing battle against racism was informed by their Christian faith.

 

Finally, around 8 p.m., as we see in this photo, Dr. King began speaking to the crowd of over 4,000 students, faculty, staff, and community members from the Nashville area. Those who couldn’t get into the building listened via a loudspeaker outside.

The task of Martin Luther King, Jr. in his address to Fisk was to celebrate the success of the students in mobilizing an energetic nonviolent struggle. King called the Nashville movement “the best organized and the most disciplined in the southland.”

 

King followed his recognition of the Nashville student movement with a plea and charge to remain steadfast and hopeful in their struggle for integration. Borrowing from Thomas Carlyle, he told listeners, “No lie can live forever. Let us not despair. The universe is with us.”

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The photograph shows King giving the address in his fiery and intense way. King is captured wide-mouthed with his hand extended to support the power of each thoughtful point offered to the audience. One of the reasons King was invited was because of his charismatic style, powerful oratory, and engaging personality. In part because of these characteristics, King emerged as a national figurehead who ignited nonviolent direct-action movements throughout the south.

In another photograph of the event, King is shown huddled among John Lewis, Rev. C.T Vivian, and Lester McKinnie. McKinnie and Lewis, then active members of the SNCC (Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee), both wear pins bearing the SNCC logo of clasped black and white forearms as well as the slogan “We shall overcome.” King and the SCLC (Southern Christian Leadership Council) had hoped that SNCC would serve as the youth branch of the organization.

Photo by Bettmann Collection/Getty Images

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Photo by Bettmann Collection/Getty Images

However, SNCC remained independent of the SCLC, favoring a more democratic organizational structure. Vivian, at the time, was a seminary student at the American Baptist Theological Seminary (now American Baptist College) and would eventually join King as a member of the SCLC. McKinnie was a student at Tennessee State University and later served as the field secretary for SNCC in Mississippi.

 

What weaves together King's powerful address and the presence of Lewis, Vivian, and McKinnie are the grounds of the esteemed Fisk University, which served as the center for many nonviolent strategies, workshops, and meetings.

 

Fisk’s president at the time, Dr. Stephen J. Wright, was the first HBCU president to endorse the sit-in demonstrations in the face of great controversy around the movement. The work of many courageous students who would become civil rights icons—such as Diane Nash, Bernard Lafayette, James Bevel, and John Lewis—was birthed on the grounds of Fisk University.

 

The legacy of Martin Luther King Jr.’s address there stands as a pivotal point within the Civil Rights struggle across the country. As students and teachers from around Nashville were being pulled together to form one of the greatest movements in American history, Fisk offered the space to plan, build, and create a campaign to undertake a nonviolent movement that would change the course of history. 

Learn more:

 

John Lewis and Michael D'Orso, Walking with the Wind: A Memoir of the Movement (Simon & Schuster, 1998, republished 2015)

 

C.T. Vivian, Steve Fiffer, and Andrew Young, It's in the Action: Memories of a Nonviolent Warrior (NewSouth Books, 2021)

Fisk Professor Remembers MLK Visit: https://www.wsmv.com/news/fisk-professor-remembers-mlks-visit-to-nashville/article_3d58bc64-46a5-5e5d-b54d-aaea28c4b037.html

Reporting on bomb threat at King event: https://teva.contentdm.oclc.org/digital/collection/p15138coll18/id/974/