Chapter 65. Tuesday, April 19, 1960
“Dr. Looby’s house was bombed! Dynamite, they’re saying.” Henry Still stood clutching the doorway into the room where Laurie’d slept. Half a dozen of the students who’d come down to Nashville from Pennsylvania bunked in it, rolled in sleeping bags on the floor of the house a local black family had volunteered to share with them.
Laurie had just gotten dressed after waking up to realize he was the only one still here. He’d been trying to shake off an exhausted sleep after a long day of sitting on a backless lunch counter stool at Walgreen’s, next to a sign reading, “Closed in the Interests of Public Safety.”
Now, hearing Henry, he forgot his own aches and jumped to his feet. Just like Fred Shuttlesworth, that Christmas, he thought. But he came out of it all right. “Was he hurt?” he asked Henry anxiously.
“No, he and his wife are ok. The house is wrecked, though. Come and see.”
Laurie staggered after him out to the modest living room, where the morning news was playing on the little tabletop TV set. Alexander Looby’s distinguished, scholarly-looking black face was on the screen, a white reporter holding a microphone to his mouth. “I think the bombing is an isolated incident by the hoodlum element in our community,” Looby was saying in his mild tones.
Roscoe looked up from the floor in front of the TV and said to Laurie, “That jerk just asked him if he thought we caused the bombing—because we’re protesting and ‘raising tensions’.” He scoffed and turned back to the screen.
The reporter persisted in suggesting that the sit-ins were only “making things worse.” Looby responded, “I think the Movement is worth the risk of some possible violence, though I hope very much there will be none.”
But there already has been, Laurie thought. Demonstrators had been beaten and kicked by marauding whites while the police made themselves scarce. The police showed up to haul the people who’d been attacked to jail, though. The hundred and fifty or so who’d been arrested were all protestors, mostly black. Still, they’d managed to control themselves and not fight either the mob or the cops.
John Lawson, a divinity school student at Vanderbilt, had trained them in non-violent resistance. "Do not strike back or curse if abused,” the written code of conduct he’d given them said. “Do not laugh out. Do not hold conversations with the floor walker. Do not leave your seat until your leader has given you permission to do so. Do not block entrances to stores outside nor the aisles inside. Do show yourself courteous and friendly at all times. Do sit straight; always face the counter. Do report all serious incidents to your leader. Do refer information seekers to your leader in a polite manner. Remember the teachings of Jesus, Gandhi, Martin Luther King. Love and nonviolence is the way.”
But Lawson had been expelled from Vanderbilt for his involvement, and now Looby, who’d defended the students in court, had been attacked and could easily have been killed.
The threat of death hung over all of them, of course. When they’d first arrived, Laurie had been almost paralyzed with fear. He’d thought back to the days after Emmett Till’s murder, when he’d promised Robbie never to go South. This is real hate; I never really knew it before, he realized the first time he saw the faces of the mob staring in the Woolworth’s window. These people would kill me given half a chance.
The flap over the soda shop in Bryn Mawr had been chicken feed compared to this. They’d shown up a few days later: Laurie and Julia, Henry and Jeff, Roscoe—what Julia called “the usual suspects”—and some of their black friends, a dozen or so, along with sympathetic whites from campus. They’d chosen a time when the manager was on duty, and faced with their quiet unity, and with the prospect of lost profits from the white students, he’d caved on the spot.
Nashville was a different kettle of fish, the real deal, with deep-seated enmities and irrational fears on both sides. But as the hours and days of tension went by, Laurie started to feel sure that he could still operate in spite of the fear, even here. When a counterman had deliberately poured scalding coffee over the homework Laurie was trying to do, he’d managed to stay silent. It was harder to sit still when a local tough put his cigarette out in Julia’s hair, but he knew she’d not thank him for intervening, so he hadn’t.
He never retaliated, but he never backed down, either. Some of the local students had actually started to look to him when they were threatened, taking cues from his manner.
“I’ve seen my daddy, totin a heavy load, step off the sidewalk to let a white man with empty hands go by,” one said to him. “It’s hard to get that out of my mind, that ‘go along to get along’. But I look at you standin up, standin firm, makes it easier for me to do it, too.”
Conversations like that, and the experience of simply getting through one day at a time without breaking down or being broken down, fed Laurie’s confidence.
I can bring something to this endeavor, he thought, staring at the blasted-out ruins of the Looby house on the screen. And now that I’ve got Julia beside me… where is Julia, anyway?
On the thought, the front door opened; Julia stood there, holding a white paper bag. She’d had her hair cropped close to her head after the cigarette incident; the exposure of her shapely skull made her look more regal than ever, even in jeans and a butter-yellow jersey. “Diane says we’re going to march on the courthouse,” she said. “Come on!”
The people in the living room piled out after her. It was a gorgeous day, clear and sunny and just warm enough. Laurie was happy to be marching in it instead of sitting still on an uncomfortable stool in a gloomy lunchroom for hours. He got even happier when Julia handed him her paper bag; inside he found a ham roll and a cardboard cup of coffee. “Advantage to staying in a black neighborhood,” she said, “you can find places that will serve you.”
“Advantage to being a handsome stud,” he teased, “you can find a girl who’ll serve you.”
“Oh, keep it up, Kingfish,” she said. “You’ll be finding out who serves who around here.”
They caught up with the crowd massing for the march as Laurie finished bolting his breakfast. Henry and Roscoe were behind them; other students were all around them. Linda and Ned were somewhere around, too. Laurie’s heart lifted. How can we lose? he thought. We’re together, we’re strong, and we’re in the right.
They snaked in a long line across the highway, two abreast, with C.T. Vivian, Diane Nash, and Bernard LaFayette in the lead. When they got to the courthouse, the mayor, Ben West, came out to meet them on the steps.
Laurie craned his neck, trying to read the body language. They couldn’t hear anything back in the crowd, but the word got passed along. “The mayor just said he thought segregated lunch counters are wrong!”
Laurie and Roscoe grinned at each other and Henry swung Julia into an impromptu victory dance. “Hey, find your own girl,” Laurie laughed, snagging her away and hooking his arm around her neck. “This one’s mine.”
“Oh, really?” Julia said, nudging him in the solar plexus with her elbow as she put her hands on her hips.
“Really,” he said softly. Her hands moved to rest on his hips as he kissed her.
The march was over, but the struggle wasn’t. Mayor West had temporized his statement against segregated lunch counters by adding, “It’s up to the individual business owners, of course.” One Nashville paper reported emphasizing one half of the remark, the other featured the other one.
Still, the group was heartened. On Sunday they’d all gone to Easter service at one of the black churches involved in the movement. They’d sung “I’m Goin’ to Sit at the Welcome Table” and “My Mind Stayed on Freedom.” Laurie had thought back to Sister Tharpe telling him church was about being “scairt,” accepting challenges. The black churches were proving to be the backbone of the civil rights movement, providing succor and inspiration.
But Roscoe was skeptical, chafing at the principle of nonviolence, and even their advances here didn’t convince him. He’d argued with Henry about it on Sunday till Laurie had stepped in. “Put some graphite rods in it, guys,” he’d said. “A nuclear explosion will only hurt us all.” They’d calmed down, but Roscoe still wouldn’t go with the others when Dr. King spoke at Fisk, the black university in Nashville, the day after the march on city hall.
King stood at a podium in the gymnasium, surrounded on all sides by people in bleachers, on folding chairs, on the floor. He called the Nashville sit-ins the best and most well-regulated in the South, and said he’d come to gain inspiration from them, not give it to them.
Laurie turned to Julia and whispered, “We’re never going back to the Main Line, are we?”
She bit her lip for a second, considering, then nodded. “No, we’re not,” she said.