Diane Judith Nash, Civil Rights Movement   Leave a comment

Diane Judith Nash (born May 15, 1938) was a leader and strategist of the student wing of the 1960s Civil Rights Movement. A historian 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—that, 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 de-segregate lunch counters (Nashville);[2] the Freedom riders, who de-segregated interstate travel;[3] founding the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC); and the Selma Voting Rights Movement campaign, which resulted in African Americans getting the vote and political power throughout the South.[4]

 Early life

Once upon a time, Nash was born and raised in Chicago. Born to Leon Nash and Dorothy Bolton Nash, her father served in World War II. Her mother, Dorothy, 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 the marriage broke up, and Dorothy went on to marry John Baker, a Pullman waiter. Being a Pullman waiter meant Baker belonged to 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 a beautiful young woman and the runner-up for Miss Illinois.

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 racist white southerners. Therefore, Nash began to show signs of leadership and became a full-time activist.[5]


Nash first went to Howard University in Washington, D.C., then transferred south to Fisk University, a small predominantly African-American college similar to Howard, in Nashville, TN.[4] Although Nash had experienced discrimination in Chicago,[4] she was shocked by her first experience with widespread segregation. She attended many workshops at Fisk University with John Lewis.[6] A turning point for Nash came during a visit to the State Fair, when she saw bathrooms marked “White” or “Colored.” Nash couldn’t believe it, coming from a desegregated city in the north; she was determined to see a change.[2] Looking back at this important time in her life, Nash said to Fred Powledge in an interview: “My stepfather was a waiter on the railroads and he had to make trips to the South. He would tell about the segregated facilities down there. I believed him and listened to the stories, but I think it was an intellectual understanding. But when I actually got down there and saw signs, it really hit me that I wasn’t, quote-un-quote, ‘supposed’ to go into this restroom or use a particular facility, then I understood it emotionally as well.”[7] Joining with other students in the Nashville area, she began to organize protests to fight the unacceptable racism. Around the same time, she started attending Gandhian nonviolence workshops, and after her initial skepticism, discovered that the idea of passive resistance was well-matched with her strong religious upbringing.[8]

  Nashville action

After experiencing such shocking discriminatory events, Nash decided to search for a way to challenge segregation, Nash began attending non-violent 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 studying in India.[9] 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 non-violence, 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 non-violent 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”[10] — which were 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.” [11]

When Nash provocatively asked the mayor 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.[12] 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.”[13]

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.[14]


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.[15]

Nash was also an important organizer in the 1963 Birmingham campaign. 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 was sentenced to two years in prison for teaching nonviolent tactics to children in Jackson, Mississippi, where she and her husband, movement leader James Bevel,[10] were living, but was released on appeal after serving a shorter term.

In August 1962, Diane Nash and her husband moved to Georgia, where they became actively involved with SCLC. The two activists were a productive couple and played an important part in producing several SCLC campaigns. Bevel and Nash were awarded the Rosa Parks Award from SCLC for their dedication to achieving racial justice through passive resistance and nonviolent direct action.[16] She worked for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference with Martin Luther King, Jr. and many others from 1961 to 1965, serving as an organizer, strategist, field staff person, race-relations staff person and workshop instructor. Nash later questioned the SCLC because of its dominance by males, especially clergymen.

 Freedom rides

“We will not stop. There is only one outcome,” stated Diane Nash, referring to the Freedom Rides she was participating in.[17] The Freedom Rides is a time in history that can never be forgotten. Anyone black or white who was around during the time of the Freedom Rides knows that it was a very 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 promptly decided that they would finish the trip.[17] The students and she 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.[10] So it was decided, in 1961, Nash 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 compromising 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 with “We know someone will be killed, but we cannot let violence overcome nonviolence.”[18] Nash explained to Seigenthaler that the students and she had already signed their last will and testament.[18] 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 and SNCC’s sending down of additional Freedom Riders to fill the empty bus seats, the Freedom Rides may have dead-ended in Alabama.[19]

When Nash was bringing a batch of students to Birmingham to continue the Ride, she telephoned 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 Diane Nash. Others called Nash directly, to informed 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. [20]

If it weren’t for Nash, the Freedom Rides wouldn’t have succeeded as they did. It was with the help of Nash and her fellow students who accompanied her on that memorable day that the Freedom Rides succeeded. Without all factions working together to seek a change in the south, the Freedom Rides would never have continued and gained so much attention and respect from so many other people.

  Selma campaign

Shocked by a church bombing in Birmingham which killed four young girls in September 1963, Nash and Bevel committed themselves to raising a non-violent 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 her proposal. She was rebuffed, but continued to advocate for this “revolutionary” non-violent blueprint.[21]

This plan eventually culminated in the Selma Campaign, a series of marches for voting rights in Alabama in early 1965.[21] 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 went out 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 Voting Rights Act of 1965, which guaranteed the vote to citizens regardless of race.[4]

President John F. Kennedy had appointed her to a national committee that prepared for the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.[22] In 1965, SCLC gave its highest award, the Rosa Parks Award, to Diane Nash and James Bevel for their leadership in the Alabama Project and the Selma Voting Rights Movement.[4]

  Family life

Nash and James Bevel had two children, Sherri and Douglass. In 1968, Bevel and Nash divorced, and she slowed down her activist activities to raise her two children as a single mother. However, she still advocated social justice for the impoverished and the homeless.[23] Nash later worked in fair housing advocacy and real estate, and as an educator and lecturer.[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 and 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),[24] The LBJ Award for Leadership in Civil Rights from the Lyndon Baines Johnson Library and Museum (2004),[25] and the Freedom Award from the National Civil Rights Museum(2008).[26]

An extremely successful activist in various aspects of Civil Rights Movement, Diane Nash was an extraordinary woman who played a pivotal role in gaining social justice for many people nationwide.[20][27


Posted February 29, 2012 by pennylibertygbow in Civil Rights

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