Z. Alexander Looby: A Lawyer Hero of the Nashville Sit-ins

While I was in Nashville last February, I saw a collection of photographs at the Nashville Public Library commemorating the 50th anniversary of the Nashville sit-ins of 1960, which were the main hallmark of a nonviolent campaign to end racial segregation at lunch counters. Although the planning for this protest started in 1958, it began on Feb. 13, 1960, when more than 100 protesters, mostly students from Nashville’s black colleges and universities, descended upon the lunch counters of three “five and dime” stores on the same block of Fifth Avenue North, and held the first sit-ins.

Some of the photographs showed the lunch counters with “closed” signs on them, with the stools removed and with materials placed on the stools to keep the protesters from sitting on them. There were photographs of demonstrations, mass arrests, paddy wagons, the effects of bomb threats, and mass meetings, all of which are familiar to those of us who can remember the 1960s. The protests, however, were remarkable for their nonviolent nature. The only active violence reflected was a group of white counter-protesters who sought to physically remove those “sitting-in” one of the lunch counters.

The photograph that fascinated me the most was from March 2, 1960, showing Z. Alexander Looby, former Justice Adolpho A. Birch, Robert E. Lillard, Senator Avon Williams Jr. and others fighting in court for the students who led the sit-ins. I was, of course, familiar with Justice Birch and his career, but being from Chattanooga, I did not really know much of the other men, except that I had heard Mr. Looby’s name in connection with Nashville’s Napier-Looby Bar Association. Other photographs in the collection showed that Mr. Looby, in return for his display of courage, suffered the bombing of his home — which fortunately did not injure him and his wife as they were sleeping in a back bedroom. The display included a photograph of the destruction wrought on the Looby home by the bomb. I do not doubt that the other African-American attorneys and, indeed, citizens involved suffered numerous indignities and insults. [To see these pictures, go to www.library.nashville.org/civilrights/home.html]

An entry on the Tennessee State University website relative to Looby, authored by my friend Dr. Linda Wynn, details his long and remarkable life as an academic, political leader and lawyer and his ongoing fight for civil rights. In 1946, Looby, along with Thurgood Marshall and Maurice Weaver, defended African-Americans arrested after a race riot in Columbia. Soon after the Supreme Court’s decision in Brown v. Board of Education, he filed a desegregation suit relative to the public schools in Nashville. Dr. Wynn wrote that Looby was also credited with desegregating the Nashville airport’s dining room and the city’s public golf courses.

Ironically, the attack on Looby’s home seems to have been the catalyst for breaking the impasse created by the sit-ins. The same day as the bombing, April 19, 1960, 3,000 protesters marched down Jefferson Street, past the Capitol, to the Davidson County Courthouse. There, in a dramatic meeting with Mayor Ben West, the protesters secured the Mayor’s acknowledgment that segregation and discrimination were “wrong and immoral.” Within three weeks, an agreement called “The Nashville Plan” was worked out between black civic leaders and merchants to facilitate the desegregation of the lunch counters.

As for Z. Alexander Looby, what must have been the greatest horror of his life was followed by what had to be one of the greatest honors of his long life of achievement. On April 20, 1960, just one day after the bombing, Dr. Martin Luther King visited Nashville and addressed a mass meeting at Fisk University, a meeting itself marred with a bomb threat. A very poignant photograph in the collection showed Looby being overcome with emotion as Dr. King recognized his contributions to the cause. Mr. Looby continued his fight for civil rights until his death in 1972.

Demonstrating that his efforts to change attitudes bore long-lasting fruit, 10 years after his death the Nashville Bar Association, which had denied his application for membership in the 1950s, granted a certificate of membership in Looby’s name.

Note: To learn more about Z. Alexander Looby and other Tennessee lawyers’ involvement in the sit-in movement, check out the May 2010 Tennessee Bar Journal.