While fellow southern cities such as Birmingham, Greensboro, and Little Rock may have been the focus of more headlines, Nashville played an important role in the civil rights movement during the late 1950s and 1960s. In addition to being the first metropolis in the southeast to integrate places of business peacefully, it was a hub for training students in nonviolent protest, many of whom became influential figures on the national stage. During an April 1960 speech at Fisk University, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. himself said, “I came to Nashville not to bring inspiration, but to gain inspiration from the great movement that has taken place in this community.” This legacy is worthy of reexamination fifty years after King’s death, when race relations and social justice are again at the forefront of our country’s consciousness.

The fifty photographs in this exhibition were taken between 1957, the year that desegregation in public schools began, and 1968, when the National Guard was called in to surround the state capitol in the wake of King’s assassination in Memphis. Of central significance are images of lunch counter sit-ins, led by students from local historically black colleges and universities, that took place in early 1960. The photographs were sourced from the archives of Nashville’s two daily newspapers at the time: The Tennessean and the now-defunct Nashville Banner. Some were selected to be published, but many were not. This exhibition offered an opportunity to consider the role of images and the media in shaping public opinion, a relevant subject in today’s news-saturated climate.

All images generously provided by The Tennessean and the Nashville Public Library, Special Collections, which houses the Nashville Banner Archives

For their guidance with this project, we give special thanks to Andrea Blackman and Beth Odle at the Nashville Public Library, Special Collections Division; Maria De Varenne, Larry McCormack, and Ricky Rogers at The Tennessean.


Exhibition Catalogue

We Shall Overcome: Press Photographs of Nashville during the Civil Rights Era
Edited by Kathryn E. Delmez
Foreword by John Lewis

“Nashville’s ‘We Shall Overcome’ recognized as one of best art books of 2018 by New York Times”

We Shall Overcome: Press Photographs of Nashville during the Civil Rights Era was named one of the best art books of 2018 by the New York Times. It was also awarded the 2019 Norman L. and Roselea J. Goldberg Prize for the best book published in art or medicine, Vanderbilt University.

Essays by Linda Wynn of Fisk University and the Tennessee Historical Commission and Susan H. Edwards, executive director of the Frist Art Museum, offer historical context on Nashville during the civil rights era and on photojournalism, respectively. Congressman John Lewis’s foreword recounts memories of his time in Nashville and reminds us that there is still work to be done to build King’s Beloved Community.

The catalogue is available in the Frist Art Museum gift shop for $35. For more information, contact the shop at 615-744-3990.

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