Robert Emmitt Lillard

Nashville councilman, judge, and civil rights activist, Robert E. Lillard was born March 23, 1907, in Nashville, to John W. and Virginia Allen Lillard. He received his education at Immaculate Mother's Academy and in local public schools before attending Beggins Commercial College. Lillard's longtime ambition was to become a lawyer and in 1932, while working as a city garage attendant, Lillard entered Nashville's Kent College of Law, attending law classes five nights a week. He graduated in 1935 and passed the bar examination the following year.

Lillard worked for Nashville's Fire Engine Company No. 11 and became actively involved in local black politics. In 1932 he organized the Fifteenth Ward Colored Voters and Civic Club. He persuaded local politicians to pay the two-dollar poll tax for over one hundred black men and women in the Fifteenth Ward.

In 1951, after receiving a disability pension from the fire department, Lillard entered the predominantly black Third District, Second Ward city councilman race against a white incumbent, Charles Castleman. Castleman had the support of Democratic Mayor Thomas Cummings, and white politicians reportedly offered Lillard money and jobs to withdraw from the election. Lillard responded that he would not be bought out or frightened out; white politicians would have to beat him out. Lillard won the May runoff election and joined Z. Alexander Looby as the first African Americans elected to Nashville's city council since 1911.

Lillard served the city council for twenty years, never missing a regular meeting. He served as chairman of several council committees, including the Public Election Committee. He helped persuade the city to transform Cameron Junior High School into the second high school within the city limits for local blacks and successfully gained an ordinance to desegregate the Parthenon in Centennial Park. Lillard believed that a metropolitan form of government would dilute black voting strength and opposed the plan to consolidate the city and county governments. Before retiring from the Metro City Council in 1971, Lillard became the first African American to serve as vice-mayor pro tem (1967). He made unsuccessful campaigns for vice-mayor and councilman-at-large.

Meanwhile, Lillard's political activism and law practice continued to thrive. He gained admission to the federal district court (1955), the U.S. Court of Appeals, the Sixth Circuit Court (1957), and the U.S. Supreme Court (1962). Lillard founded the Tennessee Federation of Democratic Leagues and campaigned for the election of President John F. Kennedy in 1960. He refused the offer to become Nashville's assistant U.S. attorney; however, in 1964 and 1967 Lillard was appointed to the Tennessee Board of Pardons and Paroles by two Democratic governors. In March 1978, Governor Ray Blanton appointed Lillard as judge of the First Circuit Court, Tenth Judicial District. On August 31, 1978, Lillard retired from the bench. Lillard died on November 6, 1991, and is buried in Greenwood Cemetery in Nashville.

Suggested Reading

Adapted from Bobby L. Lovett and Linda T. Wynn, Profiles of African Americans in Tennessee (1996)

Citation Information

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  • Article Title Robert Emmitt Lillard
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  • Website Name Tennessee Encyclopedia
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  • Access Date June 17, 2024
  • Publisher Tennessee Historical Society
  • Original Published Date
  • Date of Last Update March 1, 2018