Ben West

For other people named Ben West, see Ben West (disambiguation).
Raphael Benjamin West
Member of the Tennessee Senate
from the district
In office
62nd Mayor of Nashville
In office
Preceded by Thomas L. Cummings, Sr.
Succeeded by Beverly Briley
Vice Mayor of Nashville
In office
Personal details
Born (1911-03-31)31 March 1911
Columbia, Tennessee, U.S.
Died 20 November 1974(1974-11-20) (aged 63)
Nashville, Tennessee, U.S.
Resting place Nashville City Cemetery
Political party Democratic
Spouse(s) Mary Humes Meadors
Children Ben West Jr., Jay West
Alma mater Cumberland Law School, Vanderbilt University

Raphael Benjamin West (March 31, 1911 – November 20, 1974) was an attorney, politician, and mayor of Nashville, Tennessee from 1951 to 1963, and state senator from 1949 to 1951. While state senator, he supported a change from at-large to single-member district voting to the Nashville City Council. This broadened representation on the council, enabling the African-American minority to elect candidates of their choice; women also gained seats on the council.

Early life and education

West was born in 1911 in Columbia, the county seat of Maury County, Tennessee; he was the son of Martha Melissa (née Wilson) and her husband James Watt West. He moved to Nashville as a boy with his family. When he was three years old, his parents moved to a working-class neighborhood in Flat Rock, now known as the Woodbine district of Davidson County. Working his way through college, West attended Vanderbilt University and Cumberland Law School.


In 1934 West began work as an assistant district attorney in Nashville. He also became active in politics, joining the Democratic Party. The state had effectively disenfranchised most blacks since the turn of the century. This hollowed out the Republican Party in much of the state. Many elections, both local and state, were settled in the Democratic primaries, the true competitive contests.

State senate

In 1943, West ran unsuccessfully for mayor of Nashville. Three years later, in 1946, he won election as vice-mayor of Nashville.

In 1948, he was elected as state senator in the Tennessee Senate, serving one term to 1949. In the Senate, West introduced legislation that restored single-member district elections for the Nashville city council, replacing the citywide at-large election of each seat. This represented a major opportunity for African-American voters, as it enabled minorities whose votes were concentrated in a few wards to elect candidates of their choice. In the at-large elections, candidates supported by a minority had not been able to gain a majority and win election.

In addition to being a voting rights reform, this change proved important to West's political future. He would build a political base on the reemerging black voter. State repeal of such voter registration restrictions as the poll tax enabled voters to exercise their constitutional rights again. As highways were built and white voters moved to the suburbs in the postwar years, African-American voters gained more political power in the city.

Mayor of Nashville

In 1951 West won election as mayor of Nashville, along with the first two African-American councilmen in 40 years. All three men were attorneys. As mayor of Nashville, West supported other voting rights reforms, particularly a state campaign to reapportion rural and urban voting districts in the state legislature to reflect demographic changes. West championed the cause of reapportionment in the landmark case Baker v. Carr (1962), by which the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in favor of the “one man, one vote” principle. This ruling forced reapportionment of state legislatures across the country; as a result, there was a long overdue shift of political power to the more densely populated urban districts and cities.

West provided leadership in the desegregation of Nashville public schools. After a school was bombed, he and the Board of Education obtained a federal court injunction to help protect the schools, students and parents.

While mayor of Nashville, West was concerned about urban issues and civil rights. He served as president of the American Municipal Association.[1] He presided over the Capitol Hill Redevelopment Project. This replaced a slum and vice district surrounding the state capitol building with a green belt, new state office buildings, and parking lots. The East Nashville Urban Renewal Project began during his administration, and infrastructure projects were completed for an $11 million sewage treatment plant and $2 million in street lighting.[1] West's strong alliance with Nashville's black community helped improve race relations and prepare the city for the challenges of the activist years of the Civil Rights Movement.

At a critical moment during the sit-in demonstrations of 1960, following the bombing of the home of Z. Alexander Looby, city councilman and defense attorney for the students, 2500 protesters marched to city hall and challenged West to take a stand against segregation.[2] West appointed a biracial commission, and the Nashville business community quickly agreed to desegregate department store lunch counters. Nashville was the first southern city to desegregate public facilities.[1]

With an interest in improving services, West supported the consolidation of city and county government proposed in 1958 and 1963.[1] After the measure passed a referendum, West lost his bid for mayor of the new Metropolitan government in his 1963 contest with Beverly Briley.

West retired to private life. He died in Nashville on November 20, 1974.[1] He is buried in Nashville City Cemetery.


Inline citations
  1. 1 2 3 4 5 "Ben West, former Nashville mayor". St. Petersburg Times. November 22, 1974. Retrieved 13 February 2014.
  2. "Timeline: The Civil Rights Movement in America", "This Honorable Body:" African American Legislators in 19th Century Tennessee, 2013, Tennessee Department of State. Note: Diane Nash asked him, "Do you feel it is wrong to discriminate against a person solely on the basis of their race or color?" West said "yes,' later explaining, "It was a moral question – one that a man had to answer, not a politician."
General references

External links

Political offices
Preceded by
Thomas L. Cummings, Sr.
Mayor of Nashville, Tennessee
Succeeded by
Beverly Briley
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