The action took place about 50 years ago, and many of the people thinking and talking about it weren’t around to see it firsthand.
But images of a nonviolent freedom struggle poured forth anyway Thursday when a group of about 15 people gathered to talk about art that will honor Nashville’s civil rights movement.
Peaceful students, lunch counters, “whites only” signs and marches — literal manifestations of the word “movement” — were some of the things they talked about during the lunchtime session at the Nashville Public Library.
The meeting was the first of two organized by the Metro Arts Commission to gather input on public art the city is planning for a stretch of Fifth Avenue North in the heart of downtown, where a group of mostly black college students staged sit-in demonstrations at segregated lunch counters in 1960. Their efforts forced Nashville to desegregate its lunch counters in May of that year, becoming the first city in the South to do so.
“Nashville was on the cutting edge,” said Bob Bernstein, owner of Bongo Java Roasting Co. “I don’t think that’s well-known.”
After the predominantly white workshop participants watched an NBC documentary on the sit-ins from December 1960, they split into groups to talk about memories of the movement, visual symbols connected to it and ideas that remain relevant to the city today.
They covered posters on easels with large, brightly colored sticky notes, on which they and the arts commission’s facilitators wrote phrases such as “youth in leadership roles,” “love for everyone,” “carried posters and signs,” “fear of resegregating schools” and “people who we may not know by name but who made a difference.”
“Even with a small group, you get a lot of rich information,” said Caroline Vincent, the commission’s public art manager.
A selection committee has named five artists from around the country as finalists for the public art job. Vincent said the commission will summarize the public comments for each of the finalists, who will submit final, “site-specific” proposals in April.
Carolann Haggard, a stone sculptor who attended the workshop, said “it’s a shame” that none of the finalists are from Tennessee, though she didn’t apply for the job herself. “You have to take the best who apply,” she conceded.
Lamar Wilson, who co-owns an art collection with his mother, said he recently heard about the civil rights project and figured he’d “better get on board.” He arrived a bit late Thursday but was able to offer his input. “I got here just in time,” he said after the meeting. “I feel good about today.”
Vincent said the crowd could be larger at the next workshop, which won’t take place in the middle of a workday. It’s scheduled for 6- 7:30 p.m. March 12 at the Looby Branch Library, 2301 Rosa L. Parks Blvd.
Also, the easels will stay up at the main library the rest of this week, including at the Nashville Reads kickoff at 3 p.m. Saturday, allowing visitors to share memories and ideas.