Good Trouble: John Lewis's Pivotal Role in the Nashville Lunch Counter Sit-Ins of 1960

John Lewis poses with images from his first arrests for leading a nonviolent sit-in at Nashville's segregated lunch counters.
John Lewis poses with images from his first arrests for leading a nonviolent sit-in at Nashville's segregated lunch counters.
Rick Diamond/Getty Images

At approximately 12:40 p.m. on February 13, 1960, more than 100 well-dressed college students—most of them Black—appeared at the segregated lunch counters of a trio of five-and-dime stores in downtown Nashville: Woolworth’s, McLellans, and Kress. There, they purchased menu items, took their seats, and spent the afternoon quietly reading or writing.

These coordinated activities were the first in a long series of sit-ins organized by up-and-coming leaders of the civil rights movement. Among them were Reverend James Lawson, Jr.; Fisk University student Diane Nash; and 19-year-old John Lewis, then a student at the American Baptist Theological Seminary (now American Baptist College). Following the Gandhian teachings of Martin Luther King, Jr., Lewis and his fellow activists intended these sit-ins to be completely peaceful—and for about two weeks, they were.

“Although crowds of white youths gathered in several of the stores, there was no violence,” the Tennessean reported after the third sit-in on February 20, 1960. “Many of the Negro students did their homework as they sat at the counters. Others read books or magazines. One, John Lewis, a ministerial student at American Baptist seminary, worked on a sermon.”

By that point, the number of participants in Nashville had more than tripled, and students across the country were starting to stage similar events in their own cities.

“We can’t use all the volunteers we have,” Nashville protester Luther Harris told the Tennessean at the time. “Even though we work in shifts, there just isn’t room for everybody.”

But as participation and enthusiasm for the Nashville sit-ins grew, so too did the tension with hostile segregationists who came to witness these protests for themselves.

John Lewis's Rules of Conduct

On the morning of Saturday, February 27, 1960, the protesters were gathered in Reverend Kelly Miller Smith’s First Baptist Church, preparing for that afternoon’s sit-in, when Reverend Will Campbell showed up to warn them that the police planned to let those tensions finally boil over. There would be violence, he warned, as well as arrests. But the group was undeterred.

“[W]e said we had to go,” Lewis recalled in a 1981 interview with Southern Exposure. “We were afraid, but we felt that we had to bear witness.”

John Lewis speaks at a meeting of the American Society of Newspaper Editors in 1964.Marion S. Trikosko, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division

For his part, Lewis was tasked with devising a code of conduct to help the protesters maintain composure and de-escalate possibly violent situations whenever possible. "Don’t strike back or curse back if abused,” “Don’t block entrances to the stores and aisles,” and “Sit straight and always face the counter” were among the tips he offered his fellow activists [PDF]. Lewis also included important reminders to “Remember the teachings of Jesus Christ, Mohandas K. Gandhi, and Martin Luther King” and “Remember love and non-violence.”

Copies of Lewis's rules were handed out to participants and fanned out to several stores downtown.

Violence Breaks Out

Just because the protestors weren't looking for trouble didn't mean those who opposed them were maintaining a similarly peaceful position. That very same afternoon's sit-ins devolved into violence when a white man struck a white protester and the Black woman beside him at Woolworth’s. It didn’t take long for other white spectators to become belligerent.

“The whites harassed the students,” the Tennessean reported, “Kicking them, spitting on them, calling them vulgar names, and putting cigarets [sic] out on their backs.”

The protestors endured the brutality with heroic stoicism, rarely straying from Lewis’s rules. Police officers looked on, but did nothing to help the victims of these vicious attacks—and eventually even began arresting some of them. While every single member of the white mob walked free, approximately 80 sit-in participants were taken to jail.

“It was the most scandalous thing that’s happened in the South since Emmett Till,” Harris told the Tennessean. “The police just pulled out and left us unprotected. Something’s got to be done. The Negro in the South has taken a lot but there is just so much he can take.”

John Lewis was among those who were arrested—a first for the future Congressman, but hardly the last. Over the course of his career as a civil rights activist, Lewis was arrested more than 45 times.

“We didn't welcome arrest. We didn't want to go to jail,” Lewis said. “But it became … a moving spirit. Something just sort of came over us and consumed us. And we started singing ‘We Shall Overcome,’ and later we started singing ‘Paul and Silas bound in jail, had no money for their bail ...’ It became a religious experience that took place in jail.”

Lewis and his fellow protestors were released late that night, and Nashville Mayor Ben West agreed to meet with a coalition of Black ministers regarding the injustice of the arrests on Monday. Though West’s openness toward dialogue was a promising sign for the movement, it would be months before he actually began to dismantle segregation in the city.

A Pivotal March

The Nashville sit-ins continued into the spring. Then, after a bomb exploded on the property of NAACP civil rights attorney Z. Alexander Looby on April 19, 1960, thousands of protesters marched to City Hall. West met them on the front steps, and when Nash asked him if he recommended the desegregation of lunch counters, he said yes.

“That’s up to the store managers, of course, what they do,” West clarified. “I can’t tell a man how to run his business.”

It wasn’t exactly a definitive end to segregation at lunch counters, but West's public declaration did help get the ball rolling. In the following weeks, civil rights leaders and local business owners worked on a plan to end segregation at six lunch counters in Nashville, including Woolworth’s, McLellans, Kress, Walgreens, Harveys, and Cain-Sloan. On May 10—much like they had done at their first sit-in—Black students entered the establishments, purchased their meals, ate undisturbed, and left.

The Beginning of "Good Trouble"

Nashville was the first city to desegregate its lunch counters, and the long months of sit-ins served as a testament to the efficacy of peaceful protests. Even Martin Luther King, Jr. praised the “electrifying movement of Negro students [that] shattered the placid surface of campuses and communities across the South.”

For John Lewis, who would come to work closely with King, it was the beginning of a lifelong commitment to what he so memorably referred to as “getting in good trouble.”

Hubert Humphrey speaks with civil rights leaders including John Lewis, Martin Luther King, Jr., Clarence Mitchell, Roy Wilkins, Floyd McKissick, and Dorothy Height in 1966.
Yoichi Okamoto, Public Domain // Wikimedia Commons

“The underlying philosophy was the whole idea of redemptive suffering—suffering that in itself might help to redeem the larger society,” Lewis said of the sit-ins. “We talked in terms of our goal, our dream, being the beloved community, the open society, the society that is at peace with itself, where you forget about race and color and see people as human beings. We dealt a great deal with the question of the means and ends. If we wanted to create the beloved community, then the methods must be those of love and peace.”

On Friday, July 17, 2020, John Lewis died at the age of 80 following a six-month battle with pancreatic cancer. In addition to being a noted civil rights activist, Lewis—who was one of 10 children born to sharecroppers in rural Troy, Alabama—was a leading member of the Democratic party. After being elected to Congress in 1986, he was reelected 16 times, serving Georgia's 5th congressional district in the U.S. House of Representatives from 1987 until his death.

Looking to Downsize? You Can Buy a 5-Room DIY Cabin on Amazon for Less Than $33,000

Five rooms of one's own.
Five rooms of one's own.
Allwood/Amazon

If you’ve already mastered DIY houses for birds and dogs, maybe it’s time you built one for yourself.

As Simplemost reports, there are a number of house kits that you can order on Amazon, and the Allwood Avalon Cabin Kit is one of the quaintest—and, at $32,990, most affordable—options. The 540-square-foot structure has enough space for a kitchen, a bathroom, a bedroom, and a sitting room—and there’s an additional 218-square-foot loft with the potential to be the coziest reading nook of all time.

You can opt for three larger rooms if you're willing to skip the kitchen and bathroom.Allwood/Amazon

The construction process might not be a great idea for someone who’s never picked up a hammer, but you don’t need an architectural degree to tackle it. Step-by-step instructions and all materials are included, so it’s a little like a high-level IKEA project. According to the Amazon listing, it takes two adults about a week to complete. Since the Nordic wood walls are reinforced with steel rods, the house can withstand winds up to 120 mph, and you can pay an extra $1000 to upgrade from double-glass windows and doors to triple-glass for added fortification.

Sadly, the cool ceiling lamp is not included.Allwood/Amazon

Though everything you need for the shell of the house comes in the kit, you will need to purchase whatever goes inside it: toilet, shower, sink, stove, insulation, and all other furnishings. You can also customize the blueprint to fit your own plans for the space; maybe, for example, you’re going to use the house as a small event venue, and you’d rather have two or three large, airy rooms and no kitchen or bedroom.

Intrigued? Find out more here.

[h/t Simplemost]

This article contains affiliate links to products selected by our editors. Mental Floss may receive a commission for purchases made through these links.

How 'Rumor Clinics' Fought Fake News 80 Years Ago

Fake news spread fast in 1940s America.
Fake news spread fast in 1940s America.
GraphicaArtis/Getty Images

Strange tales circulated around 1940s America. There was one about a lady whose head exploded at a beauty salon after her perm ignited residue from her job at the munitions factory. Others claimed Japan was planning to spike America's water supply with arsenic, and that a Massachusetts couple reported picking up a hitchhiker who claimed Hitler was on the verge defeat, before vanishing like a ghost from the back of their car.

All of those stories were lies—but that didn't stop people from spreading the rumors. As the United States plunged into the Second World War, newspapers fought fake news amid fears of Nazi propaganda efforts.

The Rumor Clinics

About three months after Japan attacked Pearl Harbor, the first rumor clinic was created in Boston on March 1, 1942, under the leadership of Harvard Professors Gordon Allport and Robert Knapp and the Eastern Psychological Association. The Boston Herald worked with the Massachusetts Committee on Public Safety's Division of Propaganda Research and a network of volunteers who hunted down rumors and their origins to dispel misinformation the publishers believed could harm the war effort, civilian defense, or the general morale of the country. A council that included the Boston police commissioner, the state’s attorney general, representatives of local unions, and the chamber of commerce vetted each edition of the column.

The Boston Herald’s weekly rumor clinic column was duplicated across the country, with as many as 40 different newspapers running their own versions, according to a January 24, 1943 New York Times feature. At the time, there was fear that Germany’s propaganda prowess would sow dissent among the U.S. population. “The United States was convinced that the moment war broke out they would be completely bombarded by rumors planted by the Germans. In order to head off these rumors, people who wanted to defend the United States decided to track these down,” Nick Cull, a University of Southern California professor and expert in war time propaganda, tells Mental Floss.

Rumors undercut rationing and industrial war efforts, such as the rumor about a woman whose head exploded at the hair salon. Other tales re-enforced racism and other prejudices already present in the country. Some of those rumors included that Jewish people were not required to serve in the military, or that white soldiers were having Black children after receiving Red Cross blood donations from Black civilians.

“It was stories that Americans told each other,” Cull says. “The rumors were so colorful that you could never forget them once you heard them.”

Nailing a Local Lie

About three months after the first column ran, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt created the Office of War Information through executive order on June 13, 1942. As Sidney Shalett wrote in The New York Times, the OWI looked to local communities as “the best place to nail a local lie.” The OWI began working with the rumor clinics and soon found that despite the assumptions German saboteurs were wreaking havoc on America’s psyche, most of the rumors were race-based lies spread by other Americans, according to Cull.

By the end of the war, the rumor clinics started disbanding, as the OWI adopted a new strategy of spreading facts without repeating rumors. Instead of directly challenging racist rumor mongering, the OWI released materials and information promoting the idea that all Americans were in the fight together against the Axis.

According to Julie Smith, a Webster University instructor and media literacy expert, while debunking rumors can be effective, the repetition of the debunked rumors can also re-enforce them. This became a concern for the OWI, leading it to grow wary of printing rumors just for the sake of denying them. “Misinformation has been around forever," Smith says, "and we have not gotten any smarter."