‘Nashville prepared me,’ John Lewis said of his first sit-in arrest 60 years ago. ‘We grew up very fast.’

White men kicked them. They spat and blew cigar smoke in their faces. They extinguished lit cigarettes on their backs.

Still, the Black students who sat at Nashville’s lunch counters did not retaliate. They had been trained in nonviolent resistance. They remained silent, staring ahead or reading magazines, in protest of segregation. Just as they had during the sit-ins the week before. And the week before that. But this time would be different.

For the first time since hundreds of Black college students began the sit-ins at Nashville’s downtown drugstores, tempers flared. On Feb. 27, 1960, nearly 100 young African Americans, along with a few white supporters, were arrested and jailed. Future U.S. Rep. John Lewis was among them. It marked the first of his many arrests to come.

On that historic day 60 years ago, tensions escalated between crowds of white instigators and the composed young Black men and women who wanted integration and equality. The students came from local universities: Fisk, Tennessee A&I and the American Baptist Theological Seminary. They entered Woolworth’s, Walgreens and McLellan’s. Thousands of people — white and Black — crammed the area downtown, and policemen armed with billy clubs lined the streets. They were stationed there, they said, to thwart an outbreak of violence.

Two fistfights broke out that day. The first started when a white man jerked a young white male demonstrator from his lunch counter chair at McLellan’s and hit him. It was the protester, not the aggressor, who was arrested. The Black students, passively unmoved by the jeering and provocation surrounding them, were also taken into custody and charged with disorderly conduct.

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