Diane Nash should be as familiar a name as Rosa Parks. Now 84 years young, this Chicagoan’s story demands sharing. After re-viewing the PBS documentary, Eyes on the Prize, I celebrate Diane Nash’s contributions to civil rights.
Raised in Chicago, Ms. Nash moved to Nashville, Tennessee to attend Fisk University in 1959. Horrified by overt discrimination, she immediately attended nonviolent workshops and quickly agreed to lead lunch counter sit-ins. On Feb. 13 of that year the Nashville sit-ins began.
“The first sit-in we had was really funny,” Nash recalled. “The waitresses were very nervous. They must’ve dropped $2,000 of dishes that day. … We were sitting there trying not to laugh. We thought that laughing would be insulting.”
On Feb. 27, white agitators attacked several demonstrators, who remained nonviolent. While doing nothing to protect the students, the police began arresting them. Nash describes with awe how wave after wave of students kept stepping up to the lunch counter that day until 80 of them were arrested. That day marked the first of dozens of arrests for her.
As soon as the local Black community united behind the students in Nashville, Nash joined Rev. C.T. Vivian to co-lead the first major march of the Civil Rights Movement — and the first big win.
Nash recalled, “Students forced people to decide whether segregation was right or wrong.” When confronting the Nashville mayor, she was assigned the role of asking him, “Mayor West, do you believe it is wrong to discriminate against a person based solely on the color of their skin?” He relented.
Nash said, “I had a lot of respect for how he answered. He said that he did feel segregation was wrong.” It was a turning point for Nashville, and a turning point in the wider nation.
In the spring of 1961, the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) launched the Freedom Rides from Washington D.C. The Freedom Riders traveled from one state to another, facing increasing danger and violence. When they crossed the Alabama border, the riders were badly beaten and the buses burned. After beseeching from the White House, CORE called off the Freedom Rides.
Over the objections of many, Nash (with the SNCC — which she helped co-found) organized the continuation of the Freedom Rides. She informed federal officials that the new riders had produced their wills in sealed envelopes, knowing full well the risks.
She said, “We recognized that if the Freedom Ride was ended right then after all that violence, southern white racists would think that they could stop a project by inflicting enough violence on it. And we wouldn’t have been able to have any kind of movement for voting rights, for buses, public accommodations or anything after that, without getting a lot of people killed first.”
Nash married Rev. James Bevel. They moved to Jackson, Mississippi, to participate in one of the most challenging civil rights strategies. In Jackson, she was convicted of contributing to the delinquency of minors by teaching nonviolent tactics. Even though she faced a two-year sentence and was six-months pregnant, she sat in front of the courtroom, refusing to move to the back when directed to do so. Charged with contempt of court, she chose jail time instead of paying a fine. The judge, however, released her for fear of the publicity that would accompany jailing a pregnant woman.
Nash also contributed significantly to the Selma marches and the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. In the late ’60s, Nash moved back to Chicago and taught in the Chicago Public Schools. She has remained active in community-based organizing, focusing on tenants’ rights, welfare support, and equitable housing.
Let’s share her story more widely!
Rev. Alan Taylor serves as a donor organizer of Live Free Illinois, a Black-led advocacy and congregational organizing network. He also has a spiritual direction practice in-person and online. Visit his website at alanctaylor.com. Readers who are interested in Live Free Illinois can go to livefreeillnois.org