I was very interested in the nonviolent action movement in Nashville, TN after we read “Inside the Sit-ins” in class. I wondered if I had ever been in a place where a sit-in had taken place or heard about the civil rights leaders focused in Tennessee’s capital, so I looked up a little bit about the movement there. I was shocked at accounts of the first signs of Nashville sit-in violence at a Walgreens of all places. Hearing about nonviolent protester arrests at familiar places and names like Walgreens and Greyhound hit home for me. When we see household names associated with injustice, it begins to make the actions and consequences of the Civil Rights Movement immediately more real.
When I began to look deeper into the Nashville non-violence movement, I was particularly intrigued by the story of Paul LaPrad, one participant in the Nashville nonviolent movement.
Much like the more famous James Lawson and Diane Nash, LaPrad was a student of Fisk, a well-know historically black university in Nashville. Before even arriving in the city, LaPrad sought out a nonviolent coordinator in order to participate in community social work and was consequently provided Lawson’s name by a Church worker. In fact, LaPrad became Lawson’s “first recruit,” responsible for getting many other Fisk students involved in Lawson’s workshops (136-137). LaPrad was one of the individuals who participated in the famous February 27th sit-in at Woolworth’s, where the protesters were shamelessly mistreated, undergoing smoke blown in faces, cigarette butts extinguished on backs, and beatings. In addition, he was one of the individuals charged with “disorderly conduct” for sitting placidly while he was kicked and beaten. Paul LaPrad was also white.
Not only was LaPrad a victim of the violence, he became a national symbol. On that fateful day in February, a picture was taken of a white man lying in the fetal position, obviously brutalized by other white men. This image spread across the country with haste. It is the sad truth that it took someone with different color skin to draw appropriate outrage from the public on a national scale, but this image was nevertheless one of many catalysts for increasing support of the nonviolence movement. As horrible as the circumstances were for every person involved in the sit-ins, Paul was especially important in drawing national attention to the injustice of the violence in the pushback against sit-ins. While many whites may have been hesitant about supporting sit-ins by blacks, on no accounts did they approve of the violence when they saw images of a fellow, educated white man being kicked bloody on the ground by a disrespectful mob, only to read that he then raised himself from the floor to continue sitting at his place at the counter without complaint until his arrest.
Paul’s involvement in the sit-ins is significant in that it draws attention to the irrationality of opposition to nonviolent protest. It is telling of the absolute desperation of whites to retain supremacy at all costs, losing all sense of humanity and common sense in the process. It also illustrates the loss of sanity by some stubborn, traditionalist whites. The extremism demonstrated for all eyes planted the seeds of skepticism in those undecided or confused about stances surrounding civil right issues. With this commentary, I am not attempting to suggest that Paul was in any more important than other protesters of the movement, just that he significantly contributed to the national attention beamed on the movement by his role as white protester. One positive white presence in a sea of negative white influence really made a difference is changing how people saw opposition to the Civil Rights Movement as a whole.
Paul’s original article as printed in the CORE pamphlet in May 1960: http://www.crmvet.org/docs/sitin/sithome.htm (Pages 6-8)
It’s very short, so I would encourage you all to read it! It sums up the beginnings of the Nashville movement very well.
Halberstam, D. (1998). The children. New York: Random House.