In September 1959, a group of students from Fisk University in Nashville, Tenn., began a successful nonviolent desegregation campaign in their city by targeting the lunch counters of popular diners and restaurants.
Led by the Rev. Jim Lawson, the students started an economic boycott of downtown stores, in addition to their ongoing nonviolence workshops and the weekly sit-ins at local establishments. Lawson’s experience studying at Gandhi’s ashram in India provided powerful insight into the nature of their nonviolent work.
At the risk of being beaten and jailed, hundreds of black and white students sat peacefully side by side in the restaurants while grownups heckled, threw milkshakes and punched them. The police stood by while private citizens assaulted the students. In a public address to the city, Mayor Ben West reaffirmed the “rule of law” in the city, stating that the existing segregationist laws must be upheld.
When the students were jailed, they refused to pay fines to support a system that oppressed them. Instead, they opted for 30 days in the workhouse. The students’ continual willingness to suffer forced their jailers to look them in the eyes every day, challenging the system whose laws treated them unequally.
In April 1960, the home of their lawyer, Z. Alexander Looby, was bombed. The students’ response was to lead a silent march to City Hall in an attempt to rectify the continual threats and injustices perpetrated in the Deep South.
Mayor West emerged from City Hall to address the students. Diane Nash, a young woman who had been at the core of organizing the student movement, stepped up to speak with him.
She asked: “Mayor West, do you believe it is morally right to discriminate against a person solely on the basis of his or her skin color?”
He responded that he could not discriminate against a person solely on the basis of skin color.
She then asked him if he believed the lunch counters should be desegregated.
He said, “Yes.”
West did not subordinate his personal views to uphold his public responsibilities. He chose to listen to his conscience and act with integrity to make a decision that became a major turning point in the civil rights era. By May 1960, the lunch counters were desegregated.
Undoubtedly, West’s constituency in Nashville was upset with him. In the segregationist South, Jim Crow was a powerful voice. But West chose not to delegate his personal moral responsibility to another venue, like the office of mayor. He did not hide behind his official title, nor did he pass the buck.
He did not say, “It’s not my responsibility. Someone else can decide. I don’t have enough information.”
West took a stand opposing segregation, discrimination and racism because in his heart he could not look Nash, a young black woman, in the eye and say he supported policies that denied her rights and humanness.
On Feb. 10, the Ventura City Council voted down a resolution condemning the proposed invasion of Iraq.
Some City Council members rationalized that in their personal lives they oppose the war on Iraq, but professionally, in their duty as public officials, they could not vote on a resolution that they were not sure their constituency supported. They said that city councils do not have the authority to rule on matters that reside at the national or international level.
In doing this, they passed their individual moral responsibility to avoid being criticized for their anti-war stance, even though hundreds of supporters of the resolution brought more than 1,000 signatures from Ventura residents stating they, too, oppose the war.
All of us should have the courage and support to take stances for justice and peace. We should never have to shelve our conscience to follow the crowd or to avoid being stampeded by the crowd. It would be a civil rights nightmare if we were denied the right to speak our conscience, denied our power of choice, our ability to stand up for those with no voice.
Why then should we throw away the opportunity to voice our conscience, especially on such a crucial topic which affects everyone in Ventura County, like the proposed war in Iraq?
We cannot say that we are disconnected from any instance of human suffering. Moreover, we should take every opportunity to stand against injustice and work toward promoting a world where compassion rules over intolerance and diplomatic solutions are sought.
Nash took that stand when she posed her insightful questions to West in front of the thousands of marchers in Nashville.
West’s noble articulation that segregation is wrong turned the tide for those working toward justice and equality during the shameful racist era of U.S. history. His one voice made a difference. Elected officials have the historical precedence and permission to vote their consciences.
It is also a massive lesson for all of us. We cannot wait for someone else to take a stand. Each voice weighs equally, from the smallest child to the most powerful ruler. Each of us has something to contribute to the overall good of humankind.
The power of one can change history.
*Leah C. Wells of Santa Paula is a teacher and writer. She is traveling to Iraq this week and spent time there last year.