CWRU’s Social Justice Institute and Office of Inclusion, Diversity and Equal Opportunity, Facing History and Ourselves, Olivet Institutional Baptist Church and WVIZ PBS/ideastream sponsored the duo’s Sept. 30 speaking engagement, which was free, open to the public and centered on the award-winning PBS documentary “Freedom Riders.”
Nash was among the many students of the 1960s who risked their lives to combat racism in the South. One of their most powerful tactics was the non-violent sit-in. They stayed seated at department store lunch counters, bus station waiting rooms and other public places where it was illegal for African Americans to be. Their actions incited haters to curse, beat and jail them.
I learned about history-shapers like Nash, a Chicagoan who attended Fisk University in Nashville, while writing a children’s book earlier this year. I discovered she led the Nashville student sit-ins — a movement that helped ignite church pray-ins, swimming pool wade-ins, library read-ins and restroom pee-ins across the South.
Then, in September, I witnessed the unexpected in the Ford Theater during the program’s questions and answers segment: Audience member Maxine Walker Giddings, 71, energetically explained that she had participated in the Nashville student movement. Hearing this, recognition flashed across Nash’s face, and she fondly spoke of remembering Giddings’ younger brother, Matthew Walker Jr., a fellow student protestor.
That evening, I asked Giddings if she would relay her protest experiences with Neighborhood Voice readers. She graciously agreed.
A week later, she and I spoke at the dining room table in her Shaker Heights home. She told me she was born and raised in Nashville, the second of four siblings. Her father, Dr. Matthew Walker Sr., was a physician and the beloved surgery department chair at Meharry Medical College. Her mother, Alice Gibbs Johnson Walker, had pursued a master’s degree at Northwestern University before marrying.
In 1958, at 18 years old, Giddings entered Fisk with a medical degree in sight. Although she managed to earn a bachelor’s degree despite a schedule packed with sit-ins and protest marches, her medical school plans evaporated when she met and married Bradford Giddings Sr., who eventually obtained a doctorate.
In addition to sharing a dish of popcorn and almonds with me, she shared memories like these:
MLP: How did you get involved with the sit-ins?
MWG: One of my friends, Angeline Butler, told me they were planning something to combat the racism that existed in Nashville. For years, we could go and shop, but we could not sit down and eat at the lunch counters which were prevalent then … Little children couldn’t go to the bathroom [with their parents at department stores].
So I said of course I would join up. We went to several meetings. We met with Rev Jim Lawson. They said that Martin Luther King sent him to teach us the Gandhian method [named for Mohandas Gandhi, whose teachings Lawson studied while serving as a missionary in India]. He [Lawson] did teach us very well. That is the non-violent method. Sometime later, Diane Nash came from Chicago …. We met very often to learn how to be non-violent. Then the time came for us to go and actually put this into practice.
MLP: When were you arrested?
MWG: I was arrested twice, actually. The first time, I had been sitting with a fellow who was [part of] some religious group similar to a Quaker. He was a white student from Indiana. His name was Paul Laprad. So he and I had befriended each other and we sat together at McClennan’s [a downtown Nashville department store]. This was, I think, Feb. 27 . We had sat-in before on Feb. 13 but nothing had happened.
So as he and I were sitting together — a white and a black — some of the young toughs from Nashville came and knocked him down, pulled him off the chair, beat him, and he crouched in a fetal position. And there was nothing we could do because we were taught not to try and retaliate.
And actually I’ve got pictures of that. Those pictures went around the world. That was the first time that any of us became arrested. Right after they hit him, the police came and arrested all of us sit-inners and let the white toughs go. So we were taken to the jail and fingerprinted, et cetera and put in jail.
The women, at least in my group, they put us in with some prostitutes, about four or five prostitutes … It was interesting because these were the real jail cells you see in movies with the bars going straight up and down all the way around…So as we slept there, if we had to go use the toilet or something the jailers could see us. And they were trying to look, I guarantee you. So the prostitutes showed us how to shield ourselves from the male jailers … and we really appreciated it.[The jailers] were there to humiliate us in any way possible because we had gotten on their last nerve.
MLP: How did the people in town who were not students react to what you all were doing?
MWG: They were supportive — if you were talking about the black people [laughter]. They came to mass meetings.
And I got to meet Martin Luther King many times — at least three or four, shook his hand and everything. And I got to meet [NAACP Chief Counsel] Thurgood Marshall because he was very interested in the movement itself as well. In fact, Rev Martin Luther King actually said that our movement — the Nashville movement — was the most organized that he had seen. That’s written and documented. So he came down to observe and give us courage.
One time, actually, there was a mass meeting in which Dr. King was involved and there was a bomb threat. And he told us to continue no matter that there were threats. And we did continue.
Indeed, because the students continued their non-violent protests, on May 10, 1960, for the first time, black customers were served at six downtown Nashville lunch counters. However, it wasn’t until the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act that segregating public facilities based on race became illegal throughout the U.S. And even that victory did not bring an end to racial injustice in our country.
As our meeting came to a close, I asked Giddings if she had anything more to say to readers. Speaking especially to young people she said, “Continue to fight injustice in a dignified and quiet way wherever you meet it. Do not let it happen.”