The 1954 Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court ruling deemed school segregation unconstitutional. However, White resistance and legal obstacles slowed progress. Black families displayed courage by enrolling their children in all-White schools, despite facing hostility and threats. Black schools offered support despite limited resources. This journey was challenging and risky.
In Nashville, sixteen little six-year olds led the way.
The city’s officials initially promised to comply with the Supreme Court ruling but dragged their feet. In September 1955, the NAACP Legal Defense Fund sued the Nashville Board of Education to enforce desegregation. Attorneys Z. Alexander Looby, Avon Williams, and Thurgood Marshall represented 21 Black children, with A.Z. Kelly representing his son Robert W. Kelley. The case was called Kelley v. Nashville Board of Education.
The school board proposed a 12-year gradual integration plan, starting with first grade. The plaintiffs objected, but the federal court approved it. In September 1957, Black first graders were admitted to White schools. Opposition from groups like the White Citizens Council and the Ku Klux Klan grew, leading some Black parents to switch their children back to Black schools due to threats.
On September 9, 1957, 16 Black first graders integrated eight Nashville schools, facing hostility and Confederate symbols. The police provided protection, and supportive individuals joined them. That evening, White supremacists incited violent mobs, resulting in the hanging of a Black effigy, property destruction, and a dynamite blast at Hattie Cotton Elementary School, which had just admitted its first Black student.
For over four decades, Nashville's Black children faced hostility, discrimination, and trauma as they fought against segregation and its lasting impact. Their parents agonized over their mistreatment, fearing for their children's well-being. It took immense courage and determination. Among them, young Robert Kelley and the sixteen first graders who broke the color barrier on September 9, 1957, were the inspiring leaders known as the "drum majors for justice."
The Nashvillle Sixteen:
Charles E. Battles
Ethel Mai Carr
Sinclair Lee, Jr.
Willis E. Lewis
Cecil Ray, Jr.
Charles E. Ridley
Barbara Jean Watson