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Diane Nash

Diane Nash
Born Diane Judith Nash
(1938-05-15) May 15, 1938 (age 77)
Chicago, Illinois
Alma mater Howard University
Fisk University
Organization Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC)
Television Eyes on the Prize
Freedom Riders
Movement Civil Rights Movement
Spouse(s) James Bevel
Children Sherri Bevel
Douglass Bevel
Parent(s) Leon Nash
Dorothy Bolton Nash
Awards Rosa Parks Award
Distinguished American Award
LBJ Award for Leadership
Freedom Award

Diane Judith Nash (born May 15, 1938) was a leader and strategist of the student wing of the 1960s Civil Rights Movement. Historian David Halberstam described her as "…bright, focused, utterly fearless, with an unerring instinct for the correct tactical move at each increment of the crisis; as a leader, her instincts had been flawless, and she was the kind of person who pushed those around her to be at their best, or be gone from the movement."[1]

Nash's campaigns were among the most successful of the era. Her efforts included the first successful civil rights campaign to integrate lunch counters (Nashville);[2] the Freedom Riders, who de-segregated interstate travel;[3] co-founding the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC); and co-initiating the Alabama Voting Rights Project and working on the Selma Voting Rights Movement, which resulted in African Americans getting the right to register to vote and gain political power throughout the South.[4]

Diane Nash believes in taking nonviolent initiatives and eradicating discrimination against women all over the world. During recent interviews she spoke about how nations should look at nonviolent ways to solve conflicts. In an interview with Theresa Anderson she said “Violence needs to be addressed. I think the Civil Rights Movement has demonstrated how to resolve human conflicts. I think it's crazy when two countries have problems with each other and one says 'Let's bomb them, kill them, go fight.' If we have a problem with another country I would like to see consideration instead of an automatic tendency to go to war. Let's hear their side, consider our side, and look at what is logical and reasonable. Let's look at what serves the best interests of the people and see if we can negotiate solutions, more sane solutions."

Early life

Nash was born and raised in Chicago, the daughter of Leon Nash and Dorothy Bolton Nash. Her father served in World War II. Her mother worked as a keypunch operator during the war, leaving Nash in the care of her grandmother, Carrie Bolton. Bolton was a cultured woman, known for her refinement and manners.[4]

After the war, Nash's parents' marriage ended, and Dorothy went on to marry John Baker, a waiter on the railroad dining cars owned by the Pullman Company. Baker was a member of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, one of the most powerful black unions in the nation. Diane’s mother no longer had to work, although Carrie Bolton remained an influence in Nash's life.[4]


Attending Catholic schools, Nash at one point wanted to become a nun.[2] She was the runner-up in a regional beauty pageant leading to the competition for Miss Illinois.[2]

After finishing Hyde Park High School in Chicago, Diane Nash went to Washington, D.C. to attend Howard University; after a year there, she transferred to Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee, where she majored in English. It was in Nashville where she was first exposed to the full force of Jim Crow and its effect on the lives of Blacks.

When she was younger, her parents shielded her from the harshness of the world. It disgusted her that there were people in the world who were accepting of segregation. Nash refused to let herself think like that and refused to allow others to make her feel inferior to the white southerners. Therefore, Nash began to show signs of leadership and became a full-time activist.[5]

Nash's family members were surprised when she joined the Civil Rights Movement. Her grandmother was quoted as saying, “Diane, you’ve gotten in with the wrong bunch,” and did not know that Diane was the chairwoman of organizing the nonviolent protests at her university. Her family was conscious of the citizenship and politics of America, but were not familiar with the idea of civil rights. Diane Nash spoke of how it took her family time to come around about the idea of her being a key player in the Civil Rights Movement. Once she got their support, her mother began to use fundraising abilities to raise money for the students to use during the Freedom Ride. Nash states in a PBS Tavis Smiley interview, “My mother ended up going to fundraisers in Chicago that were raising money to send to the students in the South and actually, over years, she went to an elevated train bus station one day at 6:00 a.m. to hand out leaflets protesting the war." Her mother’s newly found attitude towards social movement showed her Nash’s sense of empowerment. Without her daughter’s determination and introduction of participation in social movements, Mrs. Nash would not likely have been inclined to do so either. During the Smiley interview Nash confirmed the social relationship. "Smiley: So she was encouraged and empowered by her own daughter. Nash: Yes. Smiley: Yeah, that’s powerful. Nash: That’s true."[6]

Nashville Student Movement

After experiencing such shocking discriminatory events, Nash decided to search for a way to challenge segregation. Nash began attending nonviolent civil disobedience workshops led by Rev. James Lawson.[2] James Lawson had studied Mahatma Gandhi's techniques of nonviolent direct action and passive resistance while in India.[7] By the end of her first semester at Fisk, she had become one of Lawson's most devoted disciples. Although originally a reluctant participant in nonviolence, Nash emerged as a leader due to her well-spoken, composed manner when speaking to the authorities and to the press. In 1960 at age 22, she became the leader of the Nashville sit-ins, which lasted from February to May. Unlike previous movements which were guided by older adults, this movement was led and composed primarily of students and young people.[4]

Students would sit-in at segregated lunch counters, accepting arrest in line with nonviolent principles. Nash, with John Lewis, led the protesters in a policy of refusing to pay bail. In February 1961, Nash served jail time in solidarity with the "Rock Hill Nine"[8] — nine students imprisoned after a lunch counter sit-in. They were all sentenced to pay a $50 fine for sitting at a whites-only lunch counter. Nash was chosen to represent her fellow activists when she told the judge, "We feel that if we pay these fines we would be contributing to and supporting the injustice and immoral practices that have been performed in the arrest and conviction of the defendants." [9]

When Nash provocatively asked Nashville's mayor, Ben West, on the steps of City Hall, "Do you feel it is wrong to discriminate against a person solely on the basis of their race or color?", the mayor admitted that he did.[2] Three weeks later, the lunch counters of Nashville were serving blacks.[10] and which led to the desegregation of the city's lunch counters.[4] Reflecting on this event, Nash said, "I have a lot of respect for the way he responded. He didn't have to respond the way he did. He said that he felt it was wrong for citizens of Nashville to be discriminated against at the lunch counters solely on the basis of the color of their skin. That was the turning point. That day was very important."[11]

While participating in the Nashville sit-in, Diane Nash first met one of her fellow protesters, James Bevel, whom she would later marry. They would have two children, a son and a daughter. The couple would divorce after seven years of marriage.[12]

In August 1961, Diane Nash participated in a picket line, which was protesting a local supermarket's refusal to hire blacks. When local white youths started egging the picket line and punching various people in the line, police intervened. They arrested 15 people, only 5 of which were the white perpetrators. All but one of the blacks who were put in jail accepted the $5 bail and were freed. However, Diane Nash stayed. The 21-year-old activist had insisted on her arrest with the other blacks, and once in jail, refused bail.[13]


In April 1960, Nash helped found the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC),[3] and quit school to lead its direct action wing.[4] In early 1961, Nash and ten fellow students were put under arrest in Rock Hill, South Carolina for protesting segregation. Once jailed, they would not accept the chance for bail. These dramatic events began to bring light to the fight for racial justice that was beginning to emerge. It also highlighted the idea of "jail, no bail", which was utilized by many other civil rights activists as the fight for rights progressed.[14]

Originally fearful of jail, Nash was arrested dozens of times for her activities. She spent 30 days in a South Carolina jail after protesting segregation in Rock Hill in February 1961. In 1962, although she was four months pregnant with her daughter Sherri, she faced a two year prison sentence for contributing to the delinquency of minors whom she had encouraged to become Freedom Riders and ride on the buses. Despite her pregnancy, she was ready to serve her time with the possibility of her daughter being born in jail. "I believe that if I go to jail now," she wrote in an open letter, "it may help hasten that day when my child and all children will be free — not only on the day of their birth but for all their lives." She spent 10 days in jail in Jackson, Mississippi, "where she spent her time there washing her only set of clothing in the sink during the day and listening to cockroaches skitter overhead at night".[12]

Freedom Riders

"We will not stop. There is only one outcome," stated Diane Nash, referring to the 1961 Freedom Rides which had been called off by their organizers after violence occurred.[15] The Freedom Rides was an action that became a powerful and compelling movement. When Nash and her fellow students discovered that the Freedom Riders had decided to cut their trip short at the Birmingham stop; the Nashville students, primarily Nash, promptly decided that they would finish the trip.[15] The students and Nash were committed, ready, and willing. "It was clear to me that if we allowed the Freedom Ride to stop at that point, just after so much violence had been inflicted, the message would have been sent that all you have to do to stop a nonviolent campaign is inflict massive violence," says Nash.[8] Nash then took over responsibility and led the Freedom Rides from Birmingham, Alabama to Jackson, Mississippi.

The rides had been conceived by the Congress of Racial Equality, but after severe attacks, CORE's leader James L. Farmer, Jr. was hesitant to continue them. Nash talked with the students comprising the Nashville Student Movement and argued that, "We can’t let them stop us with violence. If we do, the movement is dead." Nash was just a student at Fisk University, about to appear in the public eye as both a leader, and a very powerful woman. Diane Nash had spoken with John Seigenthaler on the phone, as Seigenthaler tried to convince Nash that the outcome of her continuance with the Freedom Rides could result in death and violence, Nash didn't hesitate to respond. She simply responded, "We know someone will be killed, but we cannot let violence overcome nonviolence."[16] Nash explained to Seigenthaler that the students and she had already signed their last will and testament.[16] John Lewis, who had just returned from participating in the Freedom Ride, agreed, as did the rest of the students, and they continued the action to a successful conclusion.[3] Without Diane Nash, others in the Nashville Student Movement, and SNCC's sending additional Freedom Riders to fill the empty bus seats, the Freedom Rides would have dead-ended in Alabama.[17]

When Nash was bringing a batch of students to Birmingham to continue the Ride, she telephoned Birmingham activist Fred Shuttlesworth to inform him. He responded to her sternly: "Young lady, do you know that the Freedom Riders were almost killed here?" Nash assured him that she did and that that would not stop her from continuing the ride. After gathering the final list of riders, she placed a phone call to Shuttlesworth. They knew their phone line had been tapped by local police, so they worked out a set a of coded messages related to, of all things, poultry. For instance, "Roosters" were substituted for male Freedom Riders, "hens" for female riders and so on. When Nash called Shuttlesworth again on Wednesday morning to tell him "The chickens are boxed," he knew that the Freedom Riders were on their way.

On May 20, 1961, when all the other riders had left the bus terminal, five of the female riders phoned Shuttlesworth, who relayed their whereabouts to Nash. Others called Nash directly, to inform her of the chaotic situation that just happened. Fearing that all the riders were now subject to arrest, Nash advised them to stay out of sight from the police, but this was compromised by Wilbur and Hermann, who had called the police after fleeing from the terminal area. [18]

Alabama Project and the Selma Voting Rights Movement

Shocked by a church bombing in Birmingham which killed four young girls in September 1963, Nash and James Bevel committed themselves to raising a nonviolent army in Alabama. Their goal was the vote for every black adult in Alabama, a radical proposition at the time. After funerals for the girls in Birmingham, Nash confronted SCLC leadership with their proposal. She was rebuffed, but continued to advocate for this "revolutionary" nonviolent blueprint.[19]

This plan eventually culminated in the Selma to Montgomery marches, a series of marches for voting rights in Alabama in early 1965 initiated and organized by James Bevel, who was running SCLC's Selma Voting Rights Movement.[19] Marchers repeatedly attempted to cross the Pettus Bridge, only to be attacked by Alabama troopers armed with clubs and tear gas. John Lewis, who had knelt to pray, had his skull fractured. The images were broadcast over national television, shocking the nation. Soon after this, President Lyndon Johnson publicly announced that it was "wrong--deadly wrong--to deny any of your fellow Americans the right to vote in this country." The initiative culminated in the 1965 Voting Rights Act, which guaranteed the vote to citizens regardless of race.[4]

President John F. Kennedy had appointed Nash to a national committee that prepared for the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.[20]

In 1965, SCLC gave its highest award, the Rosa Parks Award, to Diane Nash and James Bevel for their leadership in initiating and organizing the Alabama Project and the Selma Voting Rights Movement.[4]

Later recognition

As the civil rights era was re-examined, Nash's contributions began to be more fully recognized. She appears in the award-winning documentary film series Eyes on the Prize, in PBS' 2011 American Experience documentary on the Freedom Riders, and is featured in David Halberstam's book The Children, as well as Diane Nash: The Fire of the Civil Rights Movement.

Her later awards include Distinguished American Award from the John F. Kennedy Library and Foundation (2003),[21] The LBJ Award for Leadership in Civil Rights from the Lyndon Baines Johnson Library and Museum (2004),[22] and the Freedom Award from the National Civil Rights Museum (2008).[23]

In popular culture

Nash is portrayed by Tessa Thompson in the 2014 film Selma.

See also


  1. ^ David Halberstam (May 1, 1995). "Nashville Revisited: Lunch-Counter Days". New York Times. 
  2. ^ a b c d e Olson, Lynne (2001). Freedom's daughters : the unsung heroines of the Civil Rights Movement from 1830 to 1970. New York : Scribner. 
  3. ^ a b c Arsenault, Raymond (2006). Freedom Riders. Oxford University Press. 
  4. ^ a b c d e f g h Halberstam, David (1999). The Children. Fawcett Books. 
  5. ^ Wagnerpedia. Retrieved 7 April 2011
  6. ^ "Tavis Smiley: Civil right activist Diane Nash". 
  7. ^ Notable Black American Women. Pg. 796
  8. ^ a b PBS by WGBH(1996-2009). Freedom Riders. Biography.
  9. ^ Branch, Taylor (1989). Parting the Waters : America in the King Years 1954-63. Simon & Schuster. 
  10. ^ Powledge, Fred (1990). Free at last? : The civil rights movement and the people who made it. Little, Brown. 
  11. ^ Notable Black American Women, pg. 797.
  12. ^ a b Heidi Hall,"Years After Change, Activist Lives Her Conviction," article originally appeared in the Nashville Tennessean, April 21, 2013, and found at Retrieved August 2, 2013.
  13. ^ 15 Arrested in Nashville Racial Fight. The Washington Post, Times Herald. Aug 7, 1961.
  14. ^ Encyclopedia of African-American Culture and History, pg. 1930.
  15. ^ a b Halberstam, David. "Negro Girl a Force in Campaign; Encouraged Bus to Keep Rolling." New York Times, May 23, 1961.
  16. ^ a b The Washington Post (2010). LexisNexis, Associated Press.
  17. ^ Encyclopedia of African American History, Vol 3. pg 424-425.
  18. ^ Arsenault, Raymond 2006). Freedom Riders. Oxford University Press.
  19. ^ a b Branch, Taylor (1999). Pillar of Fire : America in the King Years 1963-65. Simon & Schuster. 
  20. ^ "WSU: Presidential Lecture Series". Jan 14, 2004. 
  21. ^ "Dr. King, Landmark Civil Rights Anniversaries Observed at Earlham". (Earlham College). January 7, 2004. 
  22. ^ "New LBJ Award for Leadership in Civil Rights to be presented March 25". March 23, 2004. 
  23. ^ Michael Lollar (October 28, 2008). "". (Memphis Commercial Appeal). 

External links

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