Nashville’s unusual WI connection

Debbie Jacob -
Debbie Jacob -


YOU MIGHT only know Nashville from recent reports about its stellar handling of the Covenant School shooting, but if you have ever visited there, you’ll know it feels much like the West Indies. The progressive city with a population of about 650,000 in the very conservative US southern state of Tennessee has its own rhythm, energy and music – just like the Caribbean.

Nashville is different from the rest of the South in the way it has dealt with its history of slavery, the civil war and civil rights movement. It also had a West Indian connection like no other city in the southern US during that crucial stage in the civil rights movement.

This is where the brilliant Antiguan lawyer Zephaniah Alexander Looby lived and fought for civil rights from the 1940s through the 1960s. Looby, orphaned in Antigua, arrived in the US on a whaling ship when he was 15. He received a bachelor’s degree from Howard University, a Bachelor of Law degree from Columbia University, and a Doctor of Juristic Science from New York University. A doctorate in law for a black person was nearly unheard of in Looby’s day.

He is one of the main reasons Nashville never had the attention-grabbing headlines of cities in North and South Carolina, Alabama and Georgia. While other civil rights lawyers went through the motion of fighting cases they knew they would lose and waited for those cases to be sent up the judicial ladder to the Supreme Court, Looby was winning cases on the ground level.

His most famous case took place in Columbia, Tennessee where he, along with Maurice Weaver, a white lawyer from Chattanooga, and Thurgood Marshall, the future Supreme Court justice, defended 20 black men accused of murder when a riot broke out after an altercation between a white man and a former black soldier in a store where the soldier’s mother had gone to fix a radio. That trio of lawyers got acquittals for all but two of the defendants, who later won on appeals.

Through Looby’s legal efforts, Nashvllle had the first integrated lunch counters in the South. If you go to Nashville you see tributes to Looby’s work everywhere – from blown-up black and white photos of him in the national award-winning Nashville city library to a community centre named after him and a plaque outside of his house, which was bombed in 1960.

Looby defended all the important student civil rights leaders including Diane Nash, James Bevel and John Lewis, who became an important voice in the House of Representatives where he held a seat for Georgia. They stood by Looby and organised a march to City Hall with over 3,000 students on April 19, 1960 to protest the bombing of Looby’s house. He miraculously escaped unharmed.

When Nash confronted Mayor Ben West on the steps of City Hall and asked him if he felt discrimination against blacks was right, he said, “No, it’s not right.” The city backed down from segregated lunch counters instead of the mayor digging in his heels as other southern leaders did.

Looby fought important cases in school integration as well. For a time, he taught at Nashville’s all-black Fisk University.

He had his share of Supreme Court cases as well. Thurgood Marshall often credited Looby with saving his life after the Mink Slide trial. When they won, much to their surprise, the three lawyers hurried out of town, knowing that they hadn’t won any friends in the police.

Their car was stopped outside of Columbia, Marshall was arrested on a bogus traffic violation and taken away to a secluded place where he was convinced he would be lynched. Looby followed the police car and demanded Marshall be let go, and he was.

Looby’s presence certainly influenced this unusual place, which found a way to package history and sell it to tourists. Other cities show a legacy of continuous fighting against civil rights to this day. Nashville has a legacy of confronting issues.

The way the city handled the Covenant School shooting shows much about what the city values: strong leadership, collaboration, accountability, preparation and pride. I would argue that Nashville developed those values by facing its past and understanding the invaluable lessons history has to teach us.

Everywhere you turn in Nashville you see the city’s civil war and civil rights history and the city’s legacy for confronting and solving problems. Nashville demonstrates how the past can help us deal with the present and prepare for the future. But first, you have to own up to it.


"Nashville’s unusual WI connection"

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