Fisk students played big role in civil rights movement - WSMV Channel 4

Fisk University students played big role in civil rights movement

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NASHVILLE, TN (WSMV) -

Years before the historic March on Washington in 1963, a big part of the civil rights movement kicked off in Nashville, and a popular new film is reminding the world of the important role the city played in tearing down racial barriers.

"We always talk about Greensboro in 1963 and Jesse Jackson. And we always thought that's where everything began, but that's not the case," said Fisk University President James Williams.

One of the largest movements for civil rights actually took place in Nashville on the campus of Fisk University, and part of that story is told in the new movie The Butler.

Students just wanted to be treated fairly, not knowing how they would change our world.

"In November of 1959, the first test sit-in would take place at Christie's in downtown Nashville," said Fisk professor and historian Dr. Reavis Mitchell. "They came in and simply asked to be served. The response was, 'We don't serve negroes.'"

Those sit-ins then led to marches along Jefferson Street, where there were about a dozen in a three-year span. All of them were very organized and planned out.

"They practiced what it was like not to respond. They practiced not to respond if a cigarette was put on their neck," Mitchell said.

Mitchell was even struck by a brick during a march while Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. spoke of peaceful demonstrations at Fisk in 1960. And the school suffered, too, as many supporters began pulling their funding.

But Mitchell said students kept taking risks, including when Fisk student Diane Nash asked then-Nashville Mayor Ben West whether it is right or not to have segregated seating at lunch counters, to which West answered, "No."

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