The Nashville Bar Association, Napier-Looby Bar Association and the Nashville Bar Foundation celebrated Law Day 2010 on Tues., June 15 by honoring the local attorneys who defended the rights of the lunch counter sit-in demonstrators in Nashville courts in 1960. SunTrust Bank was the Title Sponsor; Belmont University’s newly announced College of Law served as the Event Sponsor; and U.S. District Court’s Library and Miscellaneous Fund was the Supporting Sponsor.
This Law Day, Nashville attorneys commemorated the 50th anniversary of the date on which Nashville’s lunch counters were officially desegregated and the dedication of local attorneys who, despite public criticism and opposition, assured that the protestors had access to the justice system. It is a rich legacy of access to justice which has added much to our wonderful city.
“Almost all of the lawyers representing the demonstrators have passed away, and we believe that Chief Justice A. A. Birch, and George Barrett may be the only surviving lawyers of the defense team to now receive the recognition they so deserve for defending justice in the face of unfavorable public opinion,” said Jonathan Cole, president of the Nashville Bar Association. “These lawyers placed their professional reputations, lives, and even their families at risk in taking on the cases which at the time polarized the city of Nashville.”
Belmont president Dr. Bob Fisher made remarks and introduced Mayor Karl Dean at the Law Day luncheon in remembering these outstanding lawyers who fearlessly undertook representation of the civil rights protestors and the contribution that they made to assuring access to justice for everyone.
Belmont University’s newly announced College of Law was the event sponsor for Law Day. Jeff Kinsler, the founding dean of Belmont’s College of Law, said, “Belmont University College of Law is honored to sponsor this event. Justice Birch and Mr. Barrett are role models for all lawyers and law students.”
The keynote speaker at the luncheon, to be held on the Historic Metro Courthouse lawn, was Dennis Archer, the first African-American to be president of the American Bar Association. Additionally, he is a former mayor of Detroit and a former Michigan Supreme Court justice. Following the luncheon, the NBA presented a re-enactment of the trials of the sit-in demonstrators in a special continuing legal education program for lawyers. The re-enactment was recorded live, and the NBA plans to donate a copy of the re-enactment to the Nashville Public Library so it will be available for viewing by members of the public.
The defense team in those 1960 proceedings was literally a “who’s who” of leaders in the Nashville community and included Z. Alexander Looby and Robert Lillard (both Nashville city council members), Coyness Ennix (a member of the School Board), Looby’s partner Avon Williams (the namesake of the downtown campus of TSU), a young A. A. Birch (who would later become Chief Justice of the Tennessee Supreme Court and namesake of new criminal courthouse), and George Barrett (who would become a prominent plaintiff’s and civil rights attorney).
Any doubt about the seriousness of what was at stake was put to rest early on the morning of April 19, 1960 when a stick of dynamite was thrown through a window of Looby’s home. Luckily no one was hurt. But the bombing prompted the student leaders of the sit-in demonstrators to quickly organize what became known as the “Silent March” from Fisk to the Metro Courthouse. The march resulted in the now historic interaction between then-Mayor Ben West and Diane Nash, in which the Mayor conceded that Nashville’s lunch counters should no longer be segregated – a pronouncement without precedent that paved the way for desegregation of public facilities in the city.
Throughout April and May, Nashville judges and lawyers have been donating their time to visit Metro Schools to discuss with students the concept of civil disobedience, the rule of law, and the incredible significance of the Nashville sit-in demonstrations. These educational efforts were culminated in the Law Day celebration on June 15.