|Born||Diane Judith Nash
May 15, 1938
|Alma mater||Howard University
|Organization||Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC)|
|Television||Eyes on the Prize
|Movement||Civil Rights Movement|
Dorothy Bolton Nash
|Awards||Rosa Parks Award
Distinguished American Award
LBJ Award for Leadership
Diane Judith Nash (born May 15, 1938) is an American civil rights activist, and a leader and strategist of the student wing of the 1960s Civil Rights Movement. Historian
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); the Freedom Riders, who desegregated interstate travel; co-founding the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC); and co-initiating the Alabama Voting Rights Project and working on the Selma Voting Rights Movement. This helped gain Congressional passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which authorized the federal government to oversee and enforce state practices to ensure that African Americans and other minorities were not prevented from registering and voting. African Americans re-entered the formal political system.
Nash was born in 1938 and raised in Chicago, the daughter of Leon Nash and Dorothy Bolton Nash. Her father was a veteran of 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.
After the war, Nash's parents' marriage ended. Dorothy married again to 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. As Dorothy no longer worked outside the house, Diane saw less of her grandmother Carrie Bolton, but she continued as an important influence in Nash's life.
After finishing Hyde Park High School in Chicago, Diane Nash went to Washington, D.C. to attend Howard University, a historically black college (HBCU). After a year, she transferred to Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee, where she majored in English. In Nashville she was first exposed to the full force of Jim Crow laws and customs and its effect on the lives of Blacks.
When younger, she had been shielded by her parents from some of the harshness of the world. She was outraged about segregation and refused to allow others to make her feel inferior to white southerners. She began to show signs of leadership and became a full-time activist.
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;” she did not know that Diane was the chairwoman of organizing the nonviolent protests at her university. Her family was not familiar with the idea of working for civil rights. Diane Nash spoke of how it took her family time to come around to accept her as a key player in the Civil Rights Movement. But her mother began to use fundraising abilities to raise money for the Freedom Ride. Nash said 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 was influenced by Nash’s sense of empowerment.
Nashville Student Movement
At Fisk Nash searched for a way to challenge segregation. Nash began attending nonviolent civil disobedience workshops led by Rev. James Lawson. While in India, James Lawson had studied Mahatma Gandhi's techniques of nonviolent direct action and passive resistance used in his political movement. By the end of her first semester at Fisk, Nash 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. This movement was unique for the time in that it was led by and composed primarily of college students and young people.
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" — 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. chosen as spokesman, Nash said to 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." 
When Nash 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. Three weeks later, the lunch counters of Nashville were serving blacks. 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."
While participating in the Nashville sit-in, Diane Nash first met fellow protester, James Bevel, whom she would later marry. They had two children together, a son and a daughter. The couple divorced after seven years of marriage.
In August 1961, Diane Nash participated in a picket line to protest a local supermarket's refusal to hire blacks. When local white youths started egging the picket line and punching various people, police intervened. They arrested 15 people, only 5 of whom were the white attackers. All but one of the blacks who were jailed accepted the $5 bail and were freed. But, Diane Nash stayed. The 21-year-old activist had insisted on her arrest with the other blacks, and once in jail, refused bail.
SNCC and SCLC
In April 1960, Nash helped found the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), and quit school to lead its direct action wing. 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.
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".
"We will not stop. There is only one outcome," stated Diane Nash, referring to the 1961 CORE Freedom Rides. Designed to challenge state segregation of interstate buses and facilities, the project was suspended by CORE after a bus was firebombed and several riders were severely injured in attacks by a mob in Birmingham, Alabama. Nash called on Fisk University and other college students to fill buses to keep the Freedom Rides going. They traveled to the South to challenge the states. The Nashville students, primarily Nash, promptly decided to finish the trip that had been suspended at Birmingham. New Orleans Congress of Racial Equality, the Nashville 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. Nash took over responsibility for the Freedom Rides. Coordinating from Nashville, she led the Freedom Rides from Birmingham, Alabama to Jackson, Mississippi, where CORE Field Secretary Tom Gaither coordinated a massive program on the ground.
After the severe attacks, CORE's Executive Director James L. Farmer, Jr. a veteran of CORE's original 1949 Freedom Rides, 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 a student at Fisk University, about to appear in the public eye as a leader and powerful woman. Diane Nash had spoken with John Seigenthaler of the Department of Justice on the phone, as Seigenthaler warned her that the Freedom Rides could result in death and violence for participants. She responded, "We know someone will be killed, but we cannot let violence overcome nonviolence." Nash explained to Seigenthaler that she and other students had already signed their wills. John Lewis, who had just returned from the Freedom Ride, agreed to continue it, as did other students. A contingent of activists from New Orleans CORE, also participated. They continued the action to a successful conclusion. 
When Nash was bringing a batch of students to Birmingham to continue the Ride, she telephoned Birmingham activist Rev. 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 had occurred. Fearing that all the riders were 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.
Alabama Project and the Selma Voting Rights Movement
Shocked by the church bombing in Birmingham in September 1963 which killed four young girls, Nash and James Bevel committed to raising a nonviolent army in Alabama. Their goal was the vote for every black adult in Alabama, a radical proposition at the time. Alabama and other southern states had effectively excluded blacks from the political system since disenfranchising them at the turn of the century. After funerals for the girls in Birmingham, Nash confronted SCLC leadership with their proposal. She was rebuffed, but continued to advocate this "revolutionary" nonviolent blueprint.
Together with SCLC, Nash and Bevel eventually implemented the Selma to Montgomery marches, a series of protests for voting rights in Alabama in early 1965. They were initiated and organized by James Bevel, who was running SCLC's Selma Voting Rights Movement. Marchers crossed the Pettus Bridge on their way to the state capital of Montgomery, but after they left the city limits, they were attacked by county police and state Alabama troopers armed with clubs and tear gas, determined to break up the peaceful march. 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 passage by Congress of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, which authorized the federal government to oversee and enforce the constitutional right to vote, with mechanisms to assess state compliance and require changes to enable registration and voting.
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.
During the civil rights era and shortly after, many of the male leaders received most of the recognition for its successes. As the civil rights era has been studied by historians, Nash's contributions have been more fully recognized.
In 1995 historian David Halberstam described Nash 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."
Nash is featured in the award-winning documentary film series Eyes on the Prize (2011), the PBS American Experience documentary on the Freedom Riders, based on the history of the same name. Nash is also credited with her work in David Halberstam's book The Children, as well as Diane Nash: The Fire of the Civil Rights Movement.
In addition, she has received the Distinguished American Award from the John F. Kennedy Library and Foundation (2003), the LBJ Award for Leadership in Civil Rights from the Lyndon Baines Johnson Library and Museum (2004), and the Freedom Award from the National Civil Rights Museum (2008).
Nash has continued to believe in the power of nonviolent action 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."
In popular culture
- Nash is portrayed by Tessa Thompson in the 2014 film Selma.
- Nash also appears in The Boondocks episode "Freedom Ride or Die".
- Olson, Lynne (2001). Freedom's Daughters : The Unsung Heroines of the Civil Rights Movement from 1830 to 1970. New York : Scribner.
- Arsenault, Raymond (2006). Freedom Riders. Oxford University Press.
- Halberstam, David (1999). The Children. Fawcett Books.
- Wagnerpedia. http://wagnerpedia.wagner.edu/index.php/Diane_Nash. Retrieved 7 April 2011
- "Tavis Smiley: Civil right activist Diane Nash".
- Notable Black American Women. Pg. 796
- PBS by WGBH(1996-2009). Freedom Riders. Biography.
- Branch, Taylor (1989). Parting the Waters : America in the King Years 1954-63. Simon & Schuster.
- Powledge, Fred (1990). Free at Last? : The Civil Rights Movement and the People Who Made It. Little, Brown.
- Notable Black American Women, pg. 797.
- Heidi Hall,"Years After Change, Activist Lives Her Conviction," article originally appeared in the Nashville Tennessean, April 21, 2013, and found at http://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation/2013/03/26/nashville-civil-rights-diane-nash/2023301/. Retrieved August 2, 2013.
- (AP), "15 Arrested in Nashville Racial Fight". The Washington Post, Times Herald. Aug 7, 1961.
- Encyclopedia of African-American Culture and History, pg. 1930.
- Halberstam, David. "Negro Girl a Force in Campaign; Encouraged Bus to Keep Rolling." New York Times, May 23, 1961.
- The Washington Post (2010). LexisNexis, Associated Press.
- Encyclopedia of African American History, Vol 3. pg 424-425.
- Arsenault, Raymond 2006). Freedom Riders. Oxford University Press.
- "WSU: Presidential Lecture Series". Jan 14, 2004.
- Branch, Taylor (1999). Pillar of Fire : America in the King Years 1963-65. Simon & Schuster.
- David Halberstam (May 1, 1995). "Nashville Revisited: Lunch-Counter Days". New York Times.
- "Dr. King, Landmark Civil Rights Anniversaries Observed at Earlham". http://www.earlham.edu/publicaffairs/content/pressroom/archive/2004/january/040107s-mlk.php (Earlham College). January 7, 2004.
- "New LBJ Award for Leadership in Civil Rights to be presented March 25". http://www.utexas.edu/news/2004/03/23/nr_lbj/. March 23, 2004.
- Michael Lollar (October 28, 2008). "http://www.commercialappeal.com/news/2008/oct/28/nash-on-front-line-of-rights-movement/". http://www.commercialappeal.com/news/2008/oct/28/nash-on-front-line-of-rights-movement/ (Memphis Commercial Appeal).
- Diane Nash (1938 -), Unsung Heroine of the Civil Rights Movement
- Tennessee Encyclopedia of History and Culture
- The Daring of Nonviolence
- Diane Nash: A Short Film from Freedom Riders
- Diane Nash Video produced by Makers: Women Who Make America
- One Person, One Vote Profile