Remembering John Lewis in Nashville

While watching the home-going service for John Lewis, I heard Civil Rights activist James Lawson speak of the efforts to desegregate downtown Nashville via non-violent protest. He mentioned the
James Lawson and Martin Luther King
names of Diane Nash, Kelly Miller Smith, et al. Lewis and Nash were Fisk students who were attempting to desegregate the stores and establishments in downtown Nashville. My parents were on the faculty at Fisk University, and this was 
the environment into which I was born in 1960.

Diane Nash and Kelly Miller Smith
The students were non-violent, but the white mobs that gathered around them were not. It still boggles the mind when I try to understand exactly what motivated these mobs to inflict such violence. In fact, I have already blogged on that subject: "What Nazis Can Teach Us About American Police."

Of course, I had no idea that all of this energy was swirling around me. I was just a baby, after all, and my parents did not discuss all that was going on. In fact, my parents did see the students as troublemakers, and did not approve of their actions. They were of the older generation, and had learned to live with segregation. But at what cost? The toll that segregation was taking on their psyches was deeply damaging and self-destructive.

My parents were on the music faculty at Fisk, and they truly felt that it was their duty to make music for the world, and to train their students to do the same. My father also directed the Fisk Jubilee Singers during that time. On occasion, during their tours in the Deep South, the churches where they were scheduled to perform would receive bomb-threats. Luckily, no bombing ever happened. But I can only imagine the fear and anxiety they experienced knowing that there was such hatred out there of this group and their music - songs of hope, love, and redemption.

They instilled in me that the power of music could "soothe the savage breast," so I went on to become a musician. But the savages are still out there, still thirsty for blood. The fact that we are still faced with lynchings, police-killings, systematic racism, and extreme poverty is truly mind-boggling. What on earth is wrong with these people?! How are they able to perpetuate this terrorism with impunity? As several have said, this is a problem that white people need to solve. If you have a family member who is an avowed racist, then it is up to you to confront that person. At the heart of every racist is a soul who has been wounded and is crying out for vengeance. But, for whatever reason, he or she is unable to direct their rage at their perpetrator - most likely because that perpetrator is a parent or authority figure. There's a thing called psychotherapy. Use it! Take advantage of it! The world is not a dumping-ground for your unfinished business.

It was especially gratifying to hear the words "Kelly Miller Smith," as he was the pastor of the First Baptist Church Capitol Hill in Nashville, and baptized me when I was 11 years old. I knew that Reverend Smith was involved in the efforts to desegregate downtown Nashville, and was a disciple of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Just recently, Dr. Smith's son, the Reverend Kelly Miller Smith Jr., hosted a Zoom meeting for the church, during which I read from my book and collected orders from the congregation. Talk about coming full-circle!


Nina Kennedy is the author of Practicing for Love: A Memoir.
You can purchase Practicing for Love at


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