Nashville and Selma

Watching the new movie Selma was like seeing Nashville's Civil Rights "All Stars": James Bevel, Diane Nash, C.T. Vivian, John Lewis, Bernard LaFayette are all depicted in the film.

To be sure, the Nashville movement was much larger than these five people. Many others who gained national prominence in the Civil Rights Movement also got their start in Nashville. But they couldn’t have done it alone. Countless ordinary “foot soldiers” – like the mass of marchers in Selma – took part in the Nashville lunch counter sit-ins in 1960, often enduring beatings, arrests, and insults.

What you may not have known – and what is not shown in the film – is that former Nashville activist, James Bevel, first proposed the Selma-to-Montgomery march. Prompted by the cold indifference of Alabama governor George Wallace to the killing of Jimmie Lee Jackson by state troopers, Bevel said:

“I’m going to go and talk to Wallace, and I’m going to walk all the way from Selma to Montgomery, because I want to think about what I want to say to him…. How many people you think … [will] walk with me?”

Listen to this excerpt of an oral history interview with Bernard LaFayette, where he tells more about Bevel’s role in initiating the march.

The Nashvillians portayed in Selma could march forward without fear, because they had already endured so much. They were, in the strongest sense of the word, veterans. In 1961, when some of them – including Diane Nash and John Lewis – left Nashville for Alabama to ensure that the Freedom Rides continued, they quite consciously knew they were risking death. These courageous men and women, most of them in their early twenties, made sure they had made out their wills before leaving town.

Now, it was four years later, and the Civil Rights campaign had focused on Selma. People who had gotten their training in non-violent protest in Nashville during the sit-ins were again at the forefront, and they were still risking their lives.

Explore Primary Sources

Civil Rights Oral History Project

Civil Rights Collection

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