Today we honor and celebrate a woman whose signficant contributions to non-violent resistance, desegregation, and social justice are significant but not widely appreciated. Diane Nash was born in Chicago in 1938. After high school, she attended Howard University for one year, then transferred to Fisk in Nashville, TN. Although she had experienced some racism, as most people of color do, her parents had managed to shelter her to the extent that they could. She was unprepared for the harsh, segregationist realities of the Jim Crow south.
Rather than return home or quietly accept her new circumstances, Nash began to look for ways to push back and create some much needed resistance. She attended a non-violent civil disobedience workshop offered by the Rev. James Lawson and took the lessons to heart. Quietly determined and eloquent, she became a leader in the local movement, helping organize sit-ins. She insisted on being arrested and refusing bail whenever present at an event that the police broke up. These actions bogged down the corrupt justice system and helped to spotlight the problems as the nation began paying closer attention.
Nash worked with a young John Lewis and participated in solidarity protests for the Rock Hill Nine. She famously confronted Nashville’s mayor on the steps of city hall, simply asking, “Do you feel it is wrong to discriminate against a person solely on the basis of their race or color?” The mayor hesitantly agreed that it was wrong, opening the door for lunch counter desegregation in Nashville–Brava, Ms. Nash.
In 1960, Nash helped found the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) a major force for civil rights change in the South. She helped organize the Freedom Riders and was a driving force in continuing the rides after violent opposition by officials in Alabama. Reflecting on the importance of refusing to back down, Nash has observed,
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.
She was also involved in the planning of the Selma to Montgomery marches, participating in the Petrus Bridge march that famously injured John Lewis and spurred President Johnson to speak out against segregation.
After the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, Nash returned to Chicago. She worked in education and real estate, becoming a local force for fair housing advocacy.
No one person is responsible for the powerful growth and action of the civil rights movement. Historians and participants agree, however, that its ongoing success owes a great debt to this amazing woman. She risked long jail sentences in several states, put herself at personal risk, and encouraged the best forms of protest, helping ensure a cohesive, committed resistance to injustice.
Slowly Diane Nash’s role is becoming an important part of our nation’s narrative at this critical time in American History. She has received many accolades and awards, including the JFK Library and Foundation Distinguished American Award (2003), LBJ Award for Leadership in Civil Rights (2004), and the Freedom Award from the National Civil Rights Museum (2008).
Thank you, Ms. Nash. Our country is in your debt.