Black History Month

Catherine Burks-Brooks

Catherine Burks-Brooks was a student at Tennessee State University when she started training in nonviolence at Fisk University.She participated in multiple sit-ins at segregated lunch counters downtown, before participating in the Nashville Movement Freedom Ride.  

The Nashville Freedom Riders tried to sit in the whites-only section of a Birmingham bus when they were arrested by Bull Connor.  In the middle of the night, Bull Connor took them out of jail and dropped them off at Tennessee-Alabama State line.

Burks-Brooks yelled, “We will see you back in Birmingham by high noon,” at Bull Connor before the students made their way to the train station. 

They discovered that Connor had sent them to a locked warehouse, and eventually found a black neighborhood and a safe place to spend the night.  After a phone call to the Nashville movement’s office, another TSU student drove down to pick them up and drive them right back to Birmingham. They arrived a little bit later than Burks-Brooks had promised.

Source: Cass, M. (2017, March 2). Civil rights advocate Catherine Burks-Brooks would not be moved. The Tennessean.

Diane Nash

Diane Nash was one of the most respected student leaders in Nashville, TN. She transferred to Fisk University from Howard University in Chicago in the fall of 1959. After experiencing segregation in Nashville, she became a founding member of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee.

In 1960, Nash helped negotiate with restaurant owners downtown to desegregate the lunch counter. When black residents boycotted the downtown store, Nash and her fellow students recruited middle aged white ladies to sit at the newly desegregated lunch counters with them. This helped prevent a boycott by white residents and the movement gained an ally.  

In 1961, Nash was elected coordinator of the Nashville Student Movement Ride. She was responsible for recruiting new Riders, speaking with the press, and campaigning for support from the federal government.  She was instrumental in motivating students to continue the Freedom Rides. 

Source: Diane Nash - SNCC Digital Gateway. (2019, February 27). SNCC Digital Gateway.

Zephaniah Alexander Looby

Zephaniah Alexander Looby immigrated to the United States in 1914 from the British West Indies. Looby moved to Nashville to teach economics at Fisk University, and later found Kent College of Law, Nashville’s first law school for African Americans since 1911.

In 1946, the NAACP hired Looby and others to represent the African Americans charged with murder following the race riot in Columbia, Tennessee. Looby’s legal defense helped acquit twenty- three of the defendants.  

He also provided legal support for college students participating in Nashville’s lunch counter sit-ins. He and his team of lawyers also represented all the arrested students for free.

In April of 1960, his home was bombed and heavily damaged, thankfully no one was injured.  Z Alexander Looby is credited for desegregating the Nashville airport dining room and the city’s public golf courses.

Source:  Z. Alexander Looby. (n.d.).

Kelly Miller Smith

Kelly Miller Smith was the one of Nashville’s most influential black leaders.  He served as the pastor of First Baptist Church, Capitol Hill from 1951-1984. 

He was elected President of Nashville NAACP in 1956. As president, he organized a voter registration drive that resulted in hundreds of new African American voters at the polls.

When the U.S. Supreme Court ruled against school segregation, Smith and 12 other black parents filed a lawsuit against the Nashville Board of Education. After their victory, his youngest daughter became one of the first African American children to integrate Nashville’s public schools in 1957.

Smith founded the Nashville Christian Leadership Conference in 1958. Through this organization, Smith held workshops to train students in the use of nonviolent protest techniques. His work to organize and support the Nashville students was instrumental to desegregating the lunch counters downtown. 


Source: “Smith, Kelly Miller | the Martin Luther King, Jr. Research and Education Institute.”,


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