“Her image still stirs our courage…nothing would dissuade her from the course of justice.”“We can’t let them stop us with violence. If we do that, the movement is dead.” —Diane Nash
The Profile of Diane Nash (b. 1938)
Diane Nash confronted Mayor Ben West of Nashville on the steps of City Hall. She stood at the head of a silent march of more than a thousand African-Americans who had been pushing for desegregation of Nashville’s downtown stores and lunch counters. One of the clergy leaders and the mayor were about to get into a debate when Nash stepped in with a simple question: “Mayor West, do you feel it is wrong to discriminate against a person solely on the basis of their race or color?” Aside from all the political and economic debates, this question cut to the heart of the matter. As West later recalled, “They asked me some pretty soul-searching questions—and one that was addressed to me as a man. And I found that I had to answer it frankly and honestly—that I did not agree that it was morally right for someone to sell them merchandise and refuse them service. And I had to answer it just exactly like that.” The gathered marchers erupted in applause.
The next day’s headline read: “Integrate Counters—Mayor.” This breakthrough culminated in a student movement that changed Nashville and honed key leaders for the U.S. civil rights movement. At the center was Diane Nash.
Nash had been raised in a black middle-class home in Chicago. She experienced little of the impact of racism and even was runner-up in a local beauty contest, a precursor to the Miss Illinois pageant. But when she enrolled at Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee, she was confronted with the harsh realities of Southern segregation, including separate restrooms for “white women” and “colored women.” She began to feel “stifled and boxed in,” and resented the inferiority that was being pressed on black people by the white-dominated society. A white exchange student at Fisk invited her to attend the workshops led by James Lawson, a black minister who taught nonviolent strategies for attacking the system of segregation.
Nash was skeptical at first, but Lawson’s teaching about overcoming self-hatred and centering on loving oneself to develop a basis for nonviolent action began to change her views. “We came to a realization of our own worth,” she said. As the workshops continued, her clarity and intense commitment to nonviolence propelled her into the emerging movement’s leadership. She was elected chair of the Student Central Committee of the Nashville movement. Nash often honestly expressed her feelings of fear and inadequacy: “We are going to be coming up against…white Southern men who are 40 and 50 and 60 years old, who are politicians and judges and owners of businesses, and I am twenty-two years old. What am I doing? And how is this little group of students my age going to stand up to these powerful people?” Then, despite those fears, she went out and took action.
Nash and the other students launched teams who sat down at lunch counters, where they were refused service. Eventually, the stores were forced to close the counters. When they reopened, the students came back. The police arrested protesters, and more students took their places at the counters. Hundreds of students came again and again, much to the consternation of the police. Then the police allowed young white toughs access to the demonstrators, and the protesting students had food and drinks dumped on them and cigarettes ground out on their heads. Some were dragged off stools and beaten. The police arrested the nonviolent activists but not a single one of their attackers.
As a child, Nash had been terrified of jail since that was where “bad people” went. Now she found herself in jail with other demonstrators, and as they were being processed before a judge and fined, Nash changed the tactics. She told the judge that she and some of the other students were refusing to pay the fines, willing to stay in jail. She said, “We feel that if we pay these fines we would be contributing to and supporting injustice and immoral practices that have been performed in the arrest and conviction of the defendants.” The commitment of the students to stay in jail and be seen in the city on work details only gave the movement more positive attention in the black community, increasing support for the activists.
After her release, Nash and a few students went almost immediately to a bus terminal and seated themselves at a lunch counter for whites, where for a change, they were served. But the movement intensified as the city refused to integrate downtown facilities. A boycott of the downtown stores was launched, complete with picketing. As the boycott gathered support, the home of the movement’s lawyer was bombed. Nobody was injured, but the damage was severe. In anger, the students marched silently to City Hall—their numbers swelled as neighbors joined them. There, on the steps of City Hall, Nash confronted the mayor, and the tide turned in Nashville.
During the middle of the Nashville campaign, Nash had participated in the founding meeting of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). She was seriously considered as the SNCC’s first chair, but a man was chosen instead. Nash later said, “Before the women’s movement, men and women tended to see the males as naturally in leadership positions.” But Nash exercised leadership in spite of such assumptions. Her leadership reached the national level when the Freedom Ride organized by the Congress on Racial Equality (CORE) was halted following violent attacks in Anniston and Birmingham, Alabama. Nash called James Farmer of CORE to see if he would object to Nashville students going to Birmingham to continue the ride. Farmer tried to dissuade her, calling it suicide. Nash responded, “We’re not stupid. But we can’t let them stop us with violence. If we do that the movement is dead.”
Nash organized the riders, including some of her closest friends from Nashville. She felt trepidation because of the risk that they might be killed. Nash was asked to stay off the buses and recruit more riders, coordinate the overall action and deal with the press and the U.S. government. She refused to give in to the pressure from President John Kennedy and his brother Robert who was the Attorney General when they appealed for a suspension of the Freedom Ride. She challenged them: “Here are people acting within their constitutional and moral rights….but they have been confined and imprisoned for it. And somehow the Attorney General and the President of the United States…can do nothing about such a gross injustice.”
When the riders got to Montgomery they were attacked and beaten. Nash kept track of all the riders who had been scattered, some ending up in hospitals. By the evening of the Montgomery attacks, male clergy and civil rights leaders had gathered, including Martin Luther King, and Nash was pushed to the side. Robert Kennedy and King were on the phone to each other, and King tried to call off the ride. James Farmer of CORE was the only one who supported Nash, and at her refusal to call off the ride, Farmer passed the message on to Kennedy, “We have been cooling off for three hundred and fifty years. If we cool off any more, we will be in a deep freeze. The Freedom Ride will go on.” Nash later appealed directly to King to try to get him to join the ride, but King refused. Farmer, however, did board a bus for the next leg of the journey. Again in Jackson, Mississippi, Nash quietly hustled around town keeping track of arrested activists to make sure nobody disappeared by falling through the cracks of the white prison system.
Following the Freedom Ride, the SNCC reorganized itself with a twin thrust of nonviolent direct action and voter registration. Nash was chosen to head up the SNCC’s direct action wing. She married James Bevel, another Nashville student activist who had become a national leader. In a campaign in McComb, Mississippi, Nash, along with Bevel and Bernard Lafayette, were arrested for “contributing to the delinquency of minors,” the segregationist legal interpretation of their efforts to recruit teenagers to join in protests. They were sentenced to two years in prison. Nash, though she was five months pregnant, chose not to appeal, comparing segregated Mississippi to prison. She released a statement from jail, “I believe that if I go to jail now, 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.” The judge who imposed the original sentence of two years let her go after she served ten days.
Nash and Bevel then moved to Selma, Alabama, to join with Bernard Lafayette and his wife in organizing African-Americans to register to vote. Bevel moved further into the public spotlight, while Nash did the less glamorous work of door-to-door canvassing. She was also caring for two small children by this time. Selma turned out to be the pivotal moment in the civil rights movement, culminating in the passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act. This time, Nash was not at the head of the marchers, but she had helped build and mobilize the constituency in Selma that made that city the prime point for breakthrough action.
In 1968 Nash and Bevel were divorced. The SNCC was disintegrating from fatigue and internal clashes. For some years, Nash took low-paying jobs to support her children, but she remained active in various causes. She continued to support civil rights and human rights groups. She joined in the anti-war movement. She put her children through college, though her own activism had short-circuited her college degree. She eventually became a real estate agent in Chicago.
Diane Nash expresses no regrets about her choices. “My living has made a difference on the planet,” she says.
She certainly made a difference. Her image still stirs our courage as we recall her standing bravely before racist thugs, police, a mayor, judges, the U.S. Attorney General and even the president himself. Nothing would dissuade her from the course of justice.
Meet more peacemakers like Diane Nash
This profile on nonviolent activist Diane Nash comes from the pages of my book, Blessed are the Peacemakers. It contains more than 60 inspirational real-life profiles plus dozens more shorter stories that are grouped in the introductions to each section. Blessed are the Peacemakers features well-know heroes like Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. as well as heroes you may have never heard of.
This book circles the planet, reporting the largely unknown story of how peacemakers from a diversity of backgrounds and spiritualities have shaped our 20th and 21st centuries.
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- Related Article: The Profile of James Lawson