A public pool in Nashville, TN (2018).
The Bitter Southerner
narrative / place

A Cool Dip & A Little Dignity

In 1961, two African-American men decided to go swimming at a whites-only Nashville pool. In response, the city closed all its public pools — for three years.
“Oh ... Lord,” Kwame Lillard says when he recalls how hot that day was back in 1961.

Nashville, Tennessee, sits in the bottom of a geological basin encircled by hills, so while it might go without saying that any Southern day in July is “hot,” Nashville can be a stew of misery. Heat rises in waves from the concrete, but no breeze stirs the bowl. The air feels wet and immobile; the city languishes to a crawl beneath it.

July 18, 1961, was exactly that kind of standstill day in the “Athens of the South.” Lillard and his friend, Matthew Walker, didn’t know what to do with themselves. Since graduating that May from the state-funded, historically black Tennessee State University, Kwame Lillard, known then as “Leo,” had lived and worked in the nondescript wood-frame house on Jefferson Street that served as headquarters for the Nashville Student Movement and a logistical center for the Civil Rights Movement’s Freedom Rides. It was Lillard’s job to train and prepare would-be Freedom Riders before they continued on to the perils of Jackson, Mississippi.  

“It was like getting a passport to go to prison, that’s what it was, and we (Lillard and activist Diane Nash) were the processing department,” he remembers.

Walker, just out of prison after his attempt to ride a Trailways bus to Jackson, was helping out for a few days. But there was nothing to do that Tuesday. No young people from northern states were in the midst of the standard three-day orientation on racism and behavior in the South. No one needed to have their belongings and medications shipped back home so they wouldn’t be confiscated in the state penitentiary at Parchman Farm, where hundreds of Freedom Riders were jailed. The phone was silent.  

The young men sat in the front room while rhythm and blues crackled from WSOK (now WVOL) on the radio and a whirring fan made a show of pushing hot air around.    

“I know,” Lillard said. “Matthew, let’s go swimming.”

Understanding exactly what his friend was implying they do with this rare day off, Walker responded, “Leo, you’re a damn fool.”
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