Poor People’s March
The Nashville lunch counter sit-ins, which lasted from February 13 to May 10, 1960, were part of a deliberate effort to end racial segregation at lunch counters in downtown Nashville, Tennessee. The sit-in campaign, coordinated by the Nashville Student Movement and the Nashville Christian Leadership Council, was notable for its early success and its emphasis on disciplined nonviolence. It was part of a broader sit-in movement that spread across the southern United States in the wake of the Greensboro sit-ins in North Carolina.
There were many workshops led by James Lawson, a former missionary in India who had studied Gandhi’s non-violent protest tactics. Many of his students, including Marion Barry, James Bevel, Bernard Lafayette, (later congressman) John Lewis, Diane Nash and C.T. Vivian, became key leaders in the American Civil Rights Movement. James Lawson and some of these Americans are still living and involved in various activism.
It was decided during these workshops that targeting lunch counters was a good way to put the City of Nashville’s racist policies on public display. These efforts eventually lead to the desegregation of lunch counters in five different Nashville area stores. Some of the same people involved with these protests were later part of the Freedom Riders who helped desegregate buses in southern states.
Eventually, along with the efforts of Martin Luther King, Jr., Rosa Parks and many others, these efforts lead to the now famous March on Washington in August 1963 and, the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act the following year. This was followed by passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965, almost exactly one year later. Consider the overwhelming influence of just one individual, James Lewis.
While many people today associate these efforts with desegregation, the late Congressman John Lewis emphasized that the right to vote is first and foremost, the most important right for any citizen of any and every color to have. Without the right to vote, citizens are left at the mercy of a governing power over which they would have no ability to change.
The late Congressman John Lewis and many others suffered imprisonment, beatings, torture and far too many lost their lives in the pursuit of human equality and the right to vote. Today we celebrate a holiday dedicated to Martin Luther King, Jr., who gave his life in his pursuit of economic and social justice, followed in February by a month dedicated to Black History.
But five decades later, while both major United States political parties pay lip-service to King and the struggle for racial equality, neither party in reality honors the legacy of those who sacrificed so much. If they truly wanted to pay them the respect they deserve, both political parties would be insisting on all American citizens earning a guaranteed “living” wage, which was the goal of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s efforts to organize a Poor People’s March.
Meanwhile, here in Nashville, Tennessee, the few who hold the power to make legislation just voted to divide Davidson County into three separate districts. This division is deliberately aimed at gaining more congressional seats for their party, while at the same time severely diluting the power of Black voters in the larger Nashville metro area.
We cannot claim to have the greatest nation on earth, as some do, when millions of children and their parents live in utter poverty, unable to afford a home even when both parents work full time. Nor can we claim to honor the legacy of those who marched and endured so much, if we don’t wholeheartedly demand from our political leaders the basic right of all people willing to work, the right to earn a living wage. A wage guaranteed to pay enough for a roof over our heads, quality healthcare, transportation, food, clothing and the other basic necessities of life.
Perhaps we could use a few more lunch counter sit-ins today. And far better, a national Poor People’s March, as Martin Luther King, Jr. was in the process of organizing, when he was violently cut down in cold blood. Like we are warned in a Bible that King frequently quoted in his many profound speeches, a nation that fails to address the needs of her sick and poor, is a nation on the wrong side of God and human rights.
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