In September 1959, a group of students from Fisk University in Nashville,
Tenn., began a successful nonviolent desegregation campaign in their city
by targeting the lunch counters of popular diners and restaurants.
Led by the Rev. Jim Lawson, the students started an economic boycott of
downtown stores, in addition to their ongoing nonviolence workshops and the
weekly sit-ins at local establishments. Lawson's experience studying at
Gandhi's ashram in India provided powerful insight into the nature of their
At the risk of being beaten and jailed, hundreds of black and white
students sat peacefully side by side in the restaurants while grownups
heckled, threw milkshakes and punched them. The police stood by while
private citizens assaulted the students. In a public address to the city,
Mayor Ben West reaffirmed the "rule of law" in the city, stating that the
existing segregationist laws must be upheld.
When the students were jailed, they refused to pay fines to support a
system that oppressed them. Instead, they opted for 30 days in the
workhouse. The students' continual willingness to suffer forced their
jailers to look them in the eyes every day, challenging the system whose
laws treated them unequally.
In April 1960, the home of their lawyer, Z. Alexander Looby, was bombed.
The students' response was to lead a silent march to City Hall in an
attempt to rectify the continual threats and injustices perpetrated in the
Mayor West emerged from City Hall to address the students. Diane Nash, a
young woman who had been at the core of organizing the student movement,
stepped up to speak with him.
She asked: "Mayor West, do you believe it is morally right to discriminate
against a person solely on the basis of his or her skin color?"
He responded that he could not discriminate against a person solely on the
basis of skin color.
She then asked him if he believed the lunch counters should be desegregated. He said, "Yes."
West did not subordinate his personal views to uphold his public
responsibilities. He chose to listen to his conscience and act with
integrity to make a decision that became a major turning point in the civil
rights era. By May 1960, the lunch counters were desegregated.
Undoubtedly, West's constituency in Nashville was upset with him. In the
segregationist South, Jim Crow was a powerful voice. But West chose not to
delegate his personal moral responsibility to another venue, like the
office of mayor. He did not hide behind his official title, nor did he pass
He did not say, "It's not my responsibility. Someone else can decide. I
don't have enough information."
West took a stand opposing segregation, discrimination and racism because
in his heart he could not look Nash, a young black woman, in the eye and
say he supported policies that denied her rights and humanness.
On Feb. 10, the Ventura City Council voted down a resolution condemning the
proposed invasion of Iraq.
Some City Council members rationalized that in their personal lives they
oppose the war on Iraq, but professionally, in their duty as public
officials, they could not vote on a resolution that they were not sure
their constituency supported. They said that city councils do not have the
authority to rule on matters that reside at the national or international
In doing this, they passed their individual moral responsibility to avoid
being criticized for their anti-war stance, even though hundreds of
supporters of the resolution brought more than 1,000 signatures from
Ventura residents stating they, too, oppose the war.
All of us should have the courage and support to take stances for justice
and peace. We should never have to shelve our conscience to follow the
crowd or to avoid being stampeded by the crowd. It would be a civil rights
nightmare if we were denied the right to speak our conscience, denied our
power of choice, our ability to stand up for those with no voice.
Why then should we throw away the opportunity to voice our conscience,
especially on such a crucial topic which affects everyone in Ventura
County, like the proposed war in Iraq?
We cannot say that we are disconnected from any instance of human
suffering. Moreover, we should take every opportunity to stand against
injustice and work toward promoting a world where compassion rules over
intolerance and diplomatic solutions are sought.
Nash took that stand when she posed her insightful questions to West in
front of the thousands of marchers in Nashville.
West's noble articulation that segregation is wrong turned the tide for
those working toward justice and equality during the shameful racist era of
U.S. history. His one voice made a difference.
Elected officials have the historical precedence and permission to vote
It is also a massive lesson for all of us. We cannot wait for someone else
to take a stand. Each voice weighs equally, from the smallest child to the
most powerful ruler. Each of us has something to contribute to the overall
good of humankind.
The power of one can change history.
Leah C. Wells of Santa Paula is a teacher and writer. She may be
contacted at email@example.com. She is traveling to Iraq this week and
spent time there last year.