Friday, December 23, 2011

As if it never happened

Not long ago I watched "Eyes on the Prize," the inspiring, agonizing documentary about the U.S. civil rights movement. I'm a native of Nashville, Tenn., and I paid close attention to the parts about the lunch counter sit-ins that roiled downtown Nashville in 1960.

Those nonviolent protesters are national heroes, but when I was growing up in the 1970s and 1980s, I didn't hear much about them. I certainly don't recall any commemorations befitting the significance of what happened. There is some of that now, including the downtown public library's marvelous civil rights collection, which was dedicated in 2004.

I have wondered whether I missed out on this history simply because I was a kid who wasn't paying attention. But yesterday I came across evidence suggesting that Nashville indeed had a case of amnesia. In a library at the University of Tennessee-Knoxville, I was looking at old issues of the Nashville Banner newspaper on microfilm. (Yes, that is how I spent my winter vacation.) The lead story of the Jan. 10, 1986, Lifestyles section is about luncheonettes, a bit of old Nashville that was fading away.

"I mourn the decline of the luncheonette," the writer muses, and he singles out the counters at establishments like Harvey's and Woolworths -- where the sit-ins took place, not many years before. It's very curious that the writer makes no mention of the protests, of this crucial Nashville history that's so profoundly entwined with his subject. I've wondered whether the rancor of the sit-ins even hastened the demise of the Nashville luncheonette, but there's no mention of that in this article about the demise of the Nashville luncheonette.