The traveling exhibit looks at the role Tennessee students played in shaping the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s.
Graham Perry is the curator of social history at the Tennessee State Museum. He was born in 1965 to a traditional Southern couple in Nashville. His father, vice president of Diamond Hill Plywood Co., was from South Alabama, his mother from North Carolina.
At the time of Perry’s birth, the Civil Rights era was speeding into the unsettling future of the unknown — one that would lead to the deafening crescendo sounded with the 1968 assassination of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in Memphis.
“I barely remember Martin Luther King getting shot,” he said. Reflecting the sentiments of many at the time, he added, “I remember my parents being for the fact that he’d gotten shot, but within about 15 years, they’d completely changed.”
Based on his own background, he recognizes perception plays an important role in documenting history because there are viewpoints he can’t see until he talks to an African-American historian who is black, or, for that matter, interviews any black person.
“As a white (person who specializes in African-American history), I’m often confronted with the fact there are certain things about perception that I miss or don’t understand,” he said. “It’s not until I talk to African-American historians or conduct oral interviews that I find out about perceptions I never thought of. But as a historian, I’m trying to look at the whole picture. I’m not just trying to look at one perception and one angle.”
Perry said documenting history and keeping it alive are important. He has recently taught children, black and white, who are so far removed from segregation, “that it’s just amazing to watch them. They’ll look at you and say — ‘It was like, how?’”
He said there have been many changes in America. Some are more positive than others, while some changes are still being deciphered.
“For example, a lot of historically black colleges have had financial trouble since then because when state universities opened up, a lot of black students left,” he said.
The curator’s interest in African-American history began as a student at the University of Memphis. During pursuit of a master’s degree, he was left with the choice of three classes. One was an African-American thematics study.
It was something he felt he needed to learn, so Perry enrolled and was wholly captivated by the subject by his professor.
“I can’t even describe to you how he just sucked us in, and I was just bitten,” he said. “Since that time, that’s what I’ve immersed myself in.”
He believes part of his interest in the Civil Rights struggle comes from growing up in a household with a World War II veteran. Perry has always been interested in conflict and war.
“To me, social conflict, even though it didn’t always involve the military or anything like that, it did involve strategies and I think it was sort of a natural fit to go from military to civil rights and social struggle,” Perry said.
Like many white middle class children, Perry grew up afraid of black people. His fear began at the age of 3 when his parents sat him in front of the television to watch the 1968 Olympics.
“They (parents) sat me down in front of the TV and when the (two track athlete) African-Americans won the gold medals, they were on the podium and held the black power salute, my parents had me scared they were going to take over the world and I remember being afraid.”
Through years of attending public schools, Perry realized his fears were unfounded.
“It was just a social movement that at the time scared a lot of people,” he said.
The exhibit began as a large temporary exhibit in Nashville that took up several rooms during its intended three-month showing. But, some state senators and other officials suggested converting it into a traveling exhibit.
So, Perry and others spent the next six months working on making the exhibit small enough to fit into a van.
“We had to take a 3 1/2-room exhibit and consolidate it so it would fit in a van,” he said.
The exhibit was reduced to a series of large-scale photos of sit-ins that occurred in such communities as Chattanooga, Knoxville, Nashville and Memphis.
One of the banner-sized photographs depicts a student sitting at the main lunch counter in Harveys Department Store in Nashville opened by Fred Harvey in 1942. The store brought the first escalators to Nashville. The decor featured carousel horses salvaged from Glendale Park, an amusement park that closed during the Great Depression. The store was also known for its lavish Christmas decorations as well as the annual nativity scene it sponsored in Centennial Park.
“Harveys had two lunch counters. One of them was called the Monkey Bar, but the protesters did not target that one,” Perry said.
The movement consolidated in the state capital in 1958 when the Rev. Kelly Miller Smith, pastor of First Baptist Church, Capitol Hill, founded the Nashville Christian Leadership Council. He promoted nonviolent tactics to accomplish racial desegregation.
The NCLC, an affiliate of the Southern Christian Leadership Council, began a series of workshops in 1958 led by James Lawson. Lawson had studied nonviolent resistance tactics as a missionary in India.
“They were running workshops at Park Memorial Baptist Church and First Colored Baptist Church, Capitol Hill,” Perry said. “They were actually training for these kinds of protests.”
The workshops were attended mainly by students from Fisk University, Tennessee A&I, American Baptist Theological Seminary and Meharry Medical College.
“They were actually training for these types of protests, but the Greensboro, N.C., students just decided to sit in one day and the Nashville kids had already gone home for Christmas break,” Perry said. “When they came back, they were getting ready for it, but all of a sudden Greensboro hits. They (Nashville) started their first sit-ins a little less than two weeks later, Feb. 13, 1960.
“The significance of Nashville was they were the first city in the South to desegregate lunch counters.”
Many of the Nashville students became leaders in the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. SNCC was student-led. Its leaders were democratically elected. It was founded by Diane Nash.
‘They ended up being the foot soldiers for the Civil Rights movement,” he said. “They were the active wing of the Southern Christian Leadership Council. That caused both coordination and pain because the younger [activists] sometimes thought the older people would try to get them to do stuff and they didn’t understand why.”