Nashville's Original Activists

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The Tea Party convention isn't the only show in town.

Another set of activists is in Nashville, Tenn., this week, marking the 50th anniversary of the civil rights sit-in movement, which helped topple Jim Crow segregation laws in the South.

North Carolina often gets credit for being the site of the first sit-ins at a whites-only lunch counter in downtown Greensboro in February of 1960.

But the Nashville movement that launched a few weeks later had a deep impact as well. Students from historically black colleges such as Fisk University, American Baptist College and then-Tennessee A&I State had been studying about the nonviolence of Mohandas Gandhi for months. They quickly put the methods to use — not just at lunch counters but at department stores and bus terminals.

They had a strict code of conduct, of asking politely to be served. Of not responding to insults or violence. Of taking "jail not bail" after their arrests. And their techniques were emulated nationwide.

And young leaders from Nashville were among the founders of one of the most influential activist groups of the period — the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, or SNCC (pronounced snick). SNCC went on to help organize the Freedom Rides in 1961 to protest segregation on interstate buses. Members were also involved in the Freedom Summers that followed, which focused on voter registration in Mississippi.

This week, Sarah Palin compared the Tea Party movement to the civil rights movement, saying that the same "patriotic indignation" drove both efforts, as well as the American Revolution. It's an interesting comparison. After all, the civil rights movement led to two landmark pieces of federal legislation, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

The true test of the Tea Party's legacy might not take 50 years to know. It might be the midterm elections in November 2010.



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