Racial Justice, Freedom and Activism in Nashville and Beyond: Then and Now Symposium


Isabella Randle and Stanley Zhao

In the wake of police brutalities and racial discrimination, Vanderbilt University understands the imperative to further encourage dialogue on the systemic issues that beset our communities. In collaboration with the Chancellor’s Lecture Series and Vanderbilt Project on Unity and American Democracy, the Office for Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion hosted a symposium on Friday, Mar. 26 on racial justice. Divided into five sessions held in the morning and afternoon, the symposium featured historians, civil rights scholars, and activists to discuss the importance of reflecting on the past to understand the present and build for the future.        

The event commenced with an introduction from Vanderbilt University Chancellor Daniel Diermeier. After thanking the audience and panelists for attending, Diermeier proceeded to inform viewers of the Office for Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion’s partnerships with the Chancellor’s Lecture Series and the Project on Unity and American Diversity and how they advance the university’s goals of fostering a more inclusive campus and nation. 

“The Chancellor Lecture Series strives to connect the Vanderbilt community and audiences across the nation and the world with leaders and visionaries on the most pressing issues of our time,” Chancellor Diermeier stated. He continued, “the Unity Project is a new initiative at Vanderbilt that was created to bridge the deep ideological and political divisions plaguing our nation. Through research, scholarship, and civil discourse, Vanderbilt’s Unity Project seeks to restore evidence-based reasoning to the national conversation.” Diermeier firmly believes that the university’s initiatives will enable it to enact positive change. 

Chancellor Diermeier acknowledged that the uphill struggle to attain racial justice in the 1950’s and 60’s was a tumultuous one, but has given rise to incredible examples of nonpartisanship, unity, and nonviolent resistance. Nashville was an early hub for the fight for civil rights, and since then, Nashville and Vanderbilt University have produced countless leaders and activists that have continued their advocacy to this day. 

The second session, moderated by Vanderbilt Professor Jon Meacham, was titled “Introduction to ‘This Moment of Reckoning.’” Led by Vice Chancellor for Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion Dr. André Churchwell and history professor Dr. Dennis Dickerson, this session offered an overview of Nashville’s contribution to the civil rights movement starting with a discussion of David Haberstam’s crucial work The Children, which covered the Nashville sit ins, the freedom rides, and key figures of the Nashville scene.

Churchwell reflected on his identity as a child of the civil rights movement by recalling memories of attending elementary school in East Nashville, where he witnessed high school and college students partaking in lunch counter sit-ins. Churchwell remembered that his principal had requested the children to say a prayer for the courageous men and women. 

Dickerson also offered his own recount of the 1960’s, particularly his older brother’s participation in the March on Washington. Dickerson had pleaded to be taken to the march, but his request was denied. Both Churchwell and Dickerson made the point that America is at a moment of reckoning, when the world is finally saying enough is enough. Lastly, Churchwell expounded on the structure of the symposium and the expertises of the people each session will highlight. 

“In order to examine the parallels as well as the significant divergences, we must supply three critical lenses: the lenses of history, news & media, and activism then and now,” Churchwell said.

Session two featured several panelists who are well-versed with how our pasts intersect with the present. Moderator Jon Meacham, who holds the Carolyn T. and Robert M. Rogers Chair in the American Presidency at Vanderbilt, introduced three leaders in their fields: Alice Randall, Vanderbilt University’s writer-in-residence, Dr. Bobby Lovett, historian and retired professor at Tennessee State University, and Dr. Dennis Dickerson. The panelists began by analyzing the echoes or parallels that they saw in today’s struggle for equality that correlate with patterns observed from the 1960’s. Randall began by noting that both eras believed that the future will always be better than the past. Dickerson expanded the dialogue by stating that despite the magnitude of successes, there is always a pattern or system of oppression that is impervious to success. Finally, Lovett reminded us that history is a constant cycle of advancements and retrenchments. 

The discussion then shifted to shed light on Nashville’s unique contribution to the movement, including a refreshing focus on young leaders, the influence of “Gandhian” moral heritage on the methodology and spirit of the Nashville movement, as well as the vitality of the Black church and the contributions of people with professed faith. The panel concluded with a discussion on what “truth” we can know now that “helps set us free,” in Meacham’s words. Randall answered that we can still make the American dream a reality. Dickerson admitted that democracy is fragile and it takes courage and vigilance to maintain it. Lovett believed that we cannot get to the truth at this time and will forever be seeking that absolute truth. However, it is important to rewrite history as more and more information is unearthed, which gets us closer to the truth.

The third session, moderated by Vanessa Beasley, Vice Provost of Academic Affairs, focused on news and the media’s role in the Nashville civil rights movement. Panelists Dwight Lewis and Pat Embry, former editors for the Tennessean and the Nashville Banner, respectively, reflected on the segregated nature of Nashville newsrooms during the civil rights movement. Specifically, both panelists discussed the challenges experienced by Robert Churchwell, the first Black person to work at a “mainstream” newspaper in the South (at the Nashville Banner) and William Reed, the first Black writer hired by the Tennessean. Churchwell’s boss never spoke to him, and he was forced to sit in the back of the newsroom, and Reed was not hired until he was 46, in spite of his enormous talent, because of his race. Panelist Yamiche Alcindor, the white house correspondent for PBS NewsHour, discussed the similarities between the lynching of Emmett Till in 1955 to the murder of George Floyd in 2020: the media coverage of both men’s deaths led to widespread outrage, especially among white moderates, and sparked mass movements to better protect Black lives. Alcindor explained that learning about Emmett Till’s murder in high school is what led her to become a journalist, because she saw how powerful media attention was in raising awareness on social justice issues. All three panelists concluded that the next generation of journalists gives them hope for the future.

Session four, titled “Past Voices in Conversation with Current Activists,” was moderated by Vanderbilt’s Writer-In-Residence Caroline Randall Williams, and featured Angeline Butler and Reverend James Lawson, legends of the 1960’s era civil rights movement, as well as Charlane Oliver, Jamil Smith, and Justin Jones, younger activists and organizers who have continued the fight for civil rights long after the Civil Rights Act. The session began with Rev. James Lawson discussing his hesitance to use the term “civil rights movement.” Rev. Lawson explained that marginalized people had been fighting for civil rights even before the Constitution, and the struggle continues to this day. The term “civil rights movement” implies that the twenty-year-long period in the middle of the 20th century was the only time such work was conducted. Additionally, Rev. Lawson explained that the term can obscure the work of individual movements; he encouraged the audience to name and honor the work of individual contributions, such as the Little Rock Nine campaign or the Freedom Ride campaign, rather than lump them all together. 

Next, the five panelists explained their personal inspirations that led them to activism, and discussed the more covert and calculatedly sinister forms of racism that plague the current fight for racial justice. Finally, the panelists compared the leadership of the 1960’s era movement with the contemporary one. Oliver, a Vanderbilt graduate and the founder of the Equity Alliance, pointed out that today’s movement, while slightly more diffuse, is also more diverse, intergenerational, and cross-national. Jones, a Fisk graduate and Vanderbilt Divinity student, explained that Black Lives Matter leadership is appropriately diffuse because its opponent, white supremacy, is also diffuse. He explained that white supremacy is ever-present and covertly ingrained into all aspects of society, and expressed concern that members of the summer 2020 movement would “fizzle out” and fail to sustain consistent pressure on society and the government.

The symposium concluded with final thoughts by Rev. Kelly Miller Smith Jr. of Nashville’s First Baptist Church, and Rhonda Y. Williams, Vanderbilt Professor of History and African American and Diaspora Studies. Smith Jr. noted that while the 1960’s era movement (in which his father was a leader) centered on feelings of fear and uncertainty, the modern racial justice movement is centered on anger. Furthermore, despite some changes Black people today deal with the same challenges as Black people 60 years ago. Smith Jr. said he “wants us to work so that we can move from our own personal angers and frustrations [and] see that not only is there a light at the end of the tunnel, but that the light is getting brighter because we are moving closer to the end of the tunnel.”

Williams offered her ponderings on the present moment before reading from her prose published in the book Black Women and Social Justice Education. She asked what we need to do to achieve the liberatory future we desire that focuses on the well-being of human beings and the earth and responded that we must challenge the multidimensional forces that perpetuate oppression, leave behind pride and greed, deeply think about the complexities of the past and the present, and fiercely challenge “deluded mindsets” that perpetuate oppression and inequality. 

“The future holds the present and the past,” Williams said. “After all, what is the future but what we make of the now and the then?”

Image Credit: “BLM March, Springfield, Oregon” (unmodified) by David Geitgey Sierralupe is licensed under CC BY 2.0