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James Lawson: How the Nashville Movement Kept the Riders Riding

The Freedom Rides began on May 4, 1961, when thirteen people left Washington, DC, on two buses, to test the compliance of Southern bus stations with a 1960 Supreme Court ruling outlawing segregation in those facilities. Their final destination was New Orleans, but after spectacular mob attacks on the riders in Anniston and Birmingham, AL,  the original riders made the decision to skip the next two stops — Montgomery and Jackson, MS — and fly directly to New Orleans.

At that point members of the Nashville Student Movement stepped forward to continue the rides as originally planned. In my interview with him last year, James Lawson talked about the role of the Nashville students in keeping the rides alive:

The role that the movement in Nashville played in the Freedom Rides has not been understood or credited for its strength and creativity. All of us in Nashville knew that John [Lewis] was on the freedom ride. [Lewis was one of the 13 original riders who left Washington on May 4]. And we saw him in many ways as our national representative in that ride. When the bus burning took place in Anniston, Alabama, we of course were keenly aware of it; and then when the bus ride went on into Birmingham and again met the white mob, we were acutely engaged.

And when the decision was made by the riders, basically because of movement injury and exhaustion, that they would catch a plane in Birmingham and go on to New Orleans and not go by bus any further. We understood the foundation of that decision; we understood the personal pain in that decision but we also understood something else, and that for us was important.

Our work in nonviolence in Nashville caused a number of people to say, spontaneously and apart from one another, “We cannot allow the freedom ride to be stopped by the violence of our opponents.” The Central Committee [as the group that ran the Nashville Student Movement was known] met the better part of the night — some people say it was SNCC; well, at that stage of the game, it wasn’t SNCC, it was was the Central Committee — they spent the better part of the night hassling and hammering, and decided that we could not let the freedom rides be stopped by the violence, that we ourselves were going to take it up and go forward with it.

Diane Nash called me immediately about that decision, and I confirmed it because she wanted to be sure I was on the same wavelength; but I not only said, “Yes, and as soon as I get back I’ll join you; I’ll be there,” but I also said to Diane, “You must call Martin King and Jim Farmer and tell them that we’re gonna take it up. And call Robert Kennedy and tell him we’re gonna take it up.” Because I just knew that’s what had to happen.

So the Nashville movement took it on ourselves to do that. Chances are — and I’ll speculate here — if we hadn’t done that, it would have been quite some time before any major activity took place to ignite the movement again. If the rides had stopped, it would have been seen as a defeat. It would have been off the front pages. Whether or not the Kennedy Administration would have been as forceful in demanding that the Interstate Commerce Commission tell the states and the businesses that segregated interstate travel had to end, I don’t know. [On September 22, 1961, the ICC issued a ruling that outlawed segregation in bus and train stations and airports.]

But I do know we outraged the administration with that behavior. It just astonished them. It also revved up the movement. People all over the country decided they’d participate in the Freedom Rides.

Lawson had started teaching a weekly workshop on nonviolence in Nashville in 1959. From these sessions would come the Nashville Student Movement. In addition to his weekly workshop, he worked as a minister and studied as a graduate student at the divinity school of Vanderbilt University. At the height of the sit-in movement in Nashville in 1960, the university expelled him. Named Vanderbilt’s Distinguished Alumnus of the year in 2005, he has been a visiting professor at the Divinity School since 2006. Read more about him.

Lawson was on the first bus into Jackson, on May 24, 1961.

James Lawson

Photographed in Los Angeles, CA, on November 11, 2005.