The elevator was crowded, I recall, and despite my urgent need, I tried to stand still, although I tugged at my mother's hand, lest she forget this was a crisis. I was not a reader yet, but I could decipher so when the elevator door slid open and I saw "WOMEN" on a door just beyond, I made a dash for it, darting in front of two black women about to enter.

My mother called for me to come back. "No, child," one of the women said. They waited until I got out of their way.

Back on the elevator, I felt the grown-ups winking and grinning above me. I was humiliated and not at all sure what I'd done. Even the black elevator operator stole a glance at me when she announced "the Ladies Powder Room." She pulled a large lever with her white-gloved hands and the elevator door slid open. My mother led me to relief through a door with a sign I could not begin to decode.

Going to downtown Nashville in the late 1950s was enough of an occasion that I was dressed in my second-best clothes and put under strict instruction not to whine, wander off, or get dirty. The pay-off for good behavior was rich though: visits to the toy departments in the two major department stores, Cain-Sloan and Harvey's, and lunch that need not involve milk or vegetables at one of the department store lunch counters.

Unbeknownst to me, my humiliation on the elevator was slight compared to what black children experienced when they came downtown.

They didn't get to drink co-cola at department store lunch counters because local law didn't allow it. If they had need of a restroom, there was no guarantee that one would be available because, again, local law didn't require merchants to provide restrooms for nonwhites. When you get down to it, desegregation was not about hamburgers, it was about the fact that even black children were unable to satisfy their basic human needs in public places.

The smugness of those grown-ups on the Cain-Sloan elevator was about to be interrupted though. Little did they know that workshops were going on, maybe at that very moment, in the basement of Nashville's black First Baptist Church. Workshops that would change life as we knew it, not only in Nashville but also all over the country.

Jim Lawson, a Methodist minister, held these workshops during the fall of 1959. In them, he taught the principles and practice of non-violent resistance and how it might be used to protest segregation. Most of the workshop participants were students at Nashville's four black colleges.

They weren't much more than kids, really, but it was plain as day to them that this emperor wore no clothes. The idea that you could tell a person where to eat, drink, or toilet solely on the basis of his skin color was as outrageous to them as the notion you could tell a black's dollar from a white's dollar once it got in the cash register. It was pretty clear that black dollars were as green as white ones, in that 17% of downtown sales were to black people. Yet they could not sit down and rest with a cold drink at the very stores that took their money.

©Copyright 2002 David Ray Skinner/SouthernReader. All rights reserved.