“We presented Southern white racists with a new option: kill us or desegregate.”
“Who the hell is Diane Nash?” Robert Kennedy Jr. asked his then-special assistant John Seigenthaler in 1961. At the time, Nash was helping to coordinate the legendary Freedom Rides, filling buses with black and white activists protesting the lack of desegregation enforcement. The initiative, originally organized by the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), faced a major setback after a bus was firebombed in Anniston, Alabama, and riders were severely beaten by a mob in Birmingham. CORE was hesitant to continue the Freedom Rides but Nash gathered supporters and persisted. Seigenthaler pleaded with Nash to discontinue the rides, saying “You’re going to get somebody killed,” to which she replied, “You don’t understand—we signed our wills last night.” Nash explained years later in the documentary Freedom Riders, “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.”
A few years earlier, Chicago-born Diane Nash arrived in Nashville, Tennessee, to attend Fisk University. She planned to study English and become a secondary school teacher. There, for the first time, she witnessed the intensity of segregation and Jim Crow laws. She was enraged when she had to use a “colored” restroom at the Tennessee State Fair and shortly thereafter helped found the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). At Fisk, she began attending nonviolent civil disobedience workshops and eventually became the leader of the Nashville sit-ins to desegregate lunch counters in the city. Nash eventually left school to work in the movement full time.
In 1961, she participated in a sit-in at a lunch counter in Rock Hill, South Carolina, and was arrested. After the arrest, she and her fellow protesters began employing a “jail, no bail” policy. Alongside fellow Nashville organizer John Lewis and other protesters, who became known as the “Rock Hill Nine”, Nash was arrested and sentenced to pay a $50 fine for sitting at a whites-only lunch counter. She defiantly 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.” Over the course of her life, she was arrested dozens of times.
By the spring of 1962, Nash had earned her place as a leader in the male-dominated civil rights movement. She and other Nashville activists held a silent march to the steps of Nashville’s city hall, asking mayor Ben West, “Do you feel it is wrong to discriminate against a person solely on the basis of their race or color?” To the surprise of almost everyone on both sides of the movement, the mayor admitted that he did. In the Freedom Riders documentary he said, “[She] asked me some pretty soul-searching questions and one that was addressed to me as a man. I tried as best as I could to answer it frankly and honestly. I could not agree that it was morally right for someone to sell them merchandise and refuse them service, and I had to answer it exactly that way.” Weeks later, the city’s businesses desegregated their lunch counters.
Nash became a prominent figure in the Alabama Project, working with the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) to fight voter disenfranchisement in Alabama and helping to organize the Selma to Montgomery marches. In 1962—when she was four months pregnant—Nash was sentenced to two years in prison for teaching nonviolent principles to children. After days of prayer, she decided not to appeal her sentence, knowing her child would be born in prison. “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 was not willing to face the public relations nightmare that would result from this and reduced her sentence to ten days. “I was scared the whole time,” she recounted. “But here’s the thing: you had to do what was required or you had to tolerate segregation. And whenever I obeyed a segregation law I felt like I was agreeing that I was too inferior to do what the general population did.”
In 1963, President John F. Kennedy appointed Diane Nash to a civil rights committee, which eventually resulted in President Lyndon Johnson’s passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965. That same year, Martin Luther King Jr. and the SCLC awarded Nash its highest honor, the Rosa Parks Award, for her leadership in the Selma voting rights fight. She was awarded the Distinguished American Award in 2003 by the John F. Kennedy Library and Foundation and the Lyndon Baines Johnson Award for Leadership in Civil Rights in 2004. She received an honorary degree from Fisk University in 2009. At age 79, Diane Nash continues to be active in the civil rights movement, remaining committed to nonviolence as a form of protest. “We will not stop,” she is quoted as saying. “There is only one outcome.”
Lead image courtesy of PBS.