FEBRUARY 13, 1960

1960 sit-in at a Nashville lunch counter Credit: U.S. Library of Congress

Students began sit-ins in downtown Nashville, Tennessee, many of them students from Fisk University.

In the months that followed, more than 150 were arrested.

Rather than pay fines, they served their time in jail. When a mayor’s committee suggested separate “Black” and “White” sections at the lunch counters, the students balked.

Two months later, a bomb exploded, nearly destroying the home of Z. Alexander Looby, the defense attorney representing many protesters. Later that day, more than 3,000 marched to city hall. Diane Nash asked the mayor if it was wrong for a citizen of Nashville to discriminate on the basis of color.

The mayor admitted it was wrong. Confronted about the lunch counters, the mayor acknowledged they should be desegregated.

Weeks later, six downtown stores desegregated their lunch counters, serving Black customers for the first time. James Lawson, who knew the principles of nonviolent resistance, led the students, many of whom became important leaders in the civil rights movement: Nash, John Lewis, James Bevel, C.T. Vivian, Marion Barry and Bernard Lafayette.

David Halberstam captured their story in his book, The Children.

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The stories of investigative reporter Jerry Mitchell have helped put four Klansmen and a serial killer behind bars. His stories have also helped free two people from death row, exposed injustices and corruption, prompting investigations and reforms as well as the firings of boards and officials. He is a Pulitzer Prize finalist, a longtime member of Investigative Reporters & Editors, and a winner of more than 30 other national awards, including a $500,000 MacArthur “genius” grant. After working for three decades for the statewide Clarion-Ledger, Mitchell left in 2019 and founded the Mississippi Center for Investigative Reporting.