“Who the hell is Diane Nash? Call her and let her know what is waiting for the Freedom Riders.”
This question was asked during a phone conversation between Attorney General Robert (Bobby) Kennedy and a top advisor, John Seigenthaler, almost 54 years ago. Seigenthaler was in New Orleans, the end point of the Freedom Rides. As he recalled the conversation: So I called her. I said “I understand that there are more Freedom Riders coming down from Nashville. You must stop them if you can.” Her response: “They are not going to turn back. They are on their way to Birmingham and they will be there shortly.” [Ref 1]
This is one of several stories told about Diane Nash, a young woman at the time and leader of the Nashville Student Movement and an organizer for the Freedom Riders during the Civil Rights Movement of the early 1960s. However, let’s come back to the opening question: Who is Diane Nash?
Diane Judith Nash, was born in Chicago, IL and received her primary and secondary education in the city’s parochial and public school systems. She began her college career at Howard University in Washington, DC, however, after the first year transferred to Fisk University in Nashville, TN in 1959. I never knew that Ms. Nash attended my alma mater, Howard University, however, had she not transferred to Fisk, would we know her for the same reasons today?
Nash is clear in stating that she was thrust into the movement rather than choosing it. Perhaps her personal movement began years earlier while still in Chicago. Nash tells the story of being an innocent 15-year-old looking to join a modeling school.[Ref 2] On finding a school that she was interested in, she called them and learned that they offered a six-week course in charm — how to walk gracefully, sit properly, put on makeup, etc. After a few minutes of conversation, the person on the other end of the phone asked her, “Are you colored, dear?” Nash replied: “I am a Negro. I let him know I was totally not aware of keeping anything from him. Race was not on my mind.”
She was told that the school did not have facilities to accept Negro students.
When she moved to Nashville in 1959, most folks expected her to be more of a collegiate socialite instead of a young civil rights leader. Nash was very popular and also viewed as very attractive. She was often described as a pretty girl, but much more than just a pretty face.
On her arrival to Nashville, she describes her reaction as incensed to a more open brand of racism than the charm school snub she experienced in Chicago. Whites were eating lunches at the counters of department stores, however, blacks were allowed to shop but forced to take their lunches to go. Her sense of dignity was attacked. [Ref 2]
This set the stage for her recruitment and training for the nonviolence workshops that were being taught in the area. Shortly thereafter, she was elected chairwoman of the Nashville student movement. It is noted that she was one of the few women leaders in the movement. We are reminded by Nash and others that the Civil Rights Movement came before the Women’s Movement.
Her accomplishments during the movement are well documented, however, she may best be known for leading the march of a large group of students down one of the main streets of the City of Nashville to the courthouse where they met with Mayor Ben West. Once it was her turn to speak with the mayor, she led him through a series of questions and then asked him, “Do you recommend that the lunch counters be desegregated?”
The mayor responded, “Yes”. More importantly, a few weeks later, the City of Nashville became the first southern city that allowed black and white patrons to eat at the same counter. This was also the first time an elected official made a decision that supported the movement. [Refs 1, 2]
Nash moved from desegregating lunch counters to desegregating interstate traffic in public transportation. Having missed too many classes, Diane put her education on hold primarily because she felt that the movement needed someone to work full-time, and she had found her calling for this stage of her life. She also knew that segregation was wrong, and that she should resist it. She turned her attention to being one of the organizers of the Freedom Riders.
As a short primer, the Freedom Riders were civil rights activist who rode interstate buses into the segregated southern United States to challenge the non-enforcement of two Supreme Court rulings (1946 and 1960) that segregated buses were unconstitutional. The southern states had ignored these rulings and nothing had been done by local or federal government to enforce the laws. [Ref 3] The first Freedom Riders left Washington, DC on May 4th and were scheduled to arrive in New Orleans on May 17, 1961.
Had the trips taken by the Freedom Riders been non-eventful, this group would have never secured their current place in history. Minor problems were reported at some stops, however, student John Lewis was attacked in Rock Hill, SC, and others were jailed. However, the worse attacks were yet to come as the Freedom Riders came under attack by local members of the Ku Klux Klan in Anniston, AL on Mother’s Day, May 14th. The bus managed to leave the station and just a few miles outside of town, came under attack and was firebombed. Fortunately, everyone onboard was able to exit the burning bus. Mob violence also occurred in Birmingham.
After several attacks on the Freedom Riders, the leadership of the movement wanted to discontinue the journey. The Kennedy administration was equally prepared to call the rides off. All but one – Diane Nash – wanted to continue with the rides.
Therefore, when the late John Seigenthaler, Sr. attempted to persuade Nash to call the Freedom Rides off, his recollection of the conversation is this: I’m saying, “You’re going to get somebody killed.” She said, “You don’t understand” — and she’s right, I didn’t understand — “You don’t understand, we signed our wills last night.” [Ref 1]
Nash was able to convince the students in Nashville that they must continue the rides, “We can’t let them stop a non-violent movement with violence. If we do, the movement is dead.” Without Diane Nash, others in the Nashville Student Movement, and the Student Nonviolence Coordinating Committee (SNCC) sending additional Freedom Riders to fill the empty bus seats, the Freedom Rides would have dead-ended in Alabama.
It goes without saying that Nash has been the subject of articles, books, documentaries, etc., and is the recipient of numerous honors and awards. She appears in the documentary film, Eyes on the Prize, PBS’s American Experience: The Freedom Riders (2011), and the book, Diane Nash: The Fire of the Civil Rights Movement. Other awards include the Distinguished American Award from the John F. Kennedy Library and Foundation (2003) and the Freedom Award from the National Civil Rights Museum (2008). [Ref 3]
In a 2011 interview with talk show host Tavis Smiley [Ref 1], Nash had this advice for Americans, especially young adults:
“Put your hopes and dreams on you…Voting is important, but voting is not enough…I don’t think what needs to be done in this country is going to be done by elected officials. American citizens have to take the country into our own hands, the future of this country, and do what’s necessary.”
For movie goers, Nash is one of the characters portrayed in the movie Selma, directed by Ava DuVernay. Tessa Thompson plays the role of the young civil rights leader.
Nash has indicated that she plans on being at one or more of the events planned to observe the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights March from Selma to Montgomery, AL, March 5 to 9, 2015. Thank you Diane Nash for having the courage of your convictions to do what many would not do or could not do.
Serendipitously, as I was researching information for this post, I discovered that a tech firm, Digital Undivided, officially launched Project Diane on February 1, 2015. [Ref 4] Its founder, Kathryn Finney, launched the project in part to honor Nash, and to use data to change the way venture capitalists think about investing in black women entrepreneurs.
This month, Project Diane is focused exclusively on data collection. They are also planning a “curriculum and incubator that is very specific to this group focused on why we aren’t creating these businesses like we should.” The company’s mission is to actively work to disrupt pattern-matching in tech by identifying, training, and supporting high performing black women founders of tech.
As a reminder, African-American history is American history, and is worth noting every day of the year. Several historic events associated with the Civil Rights Movement have been observed with 50th anniversary ceremonies. This includes passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act that outlawed segregation in public facilities and racial discrimination in employment and education. In addition to African-Americans, other persons of color and women (of all hue) benefitted from this landmark legislation.
Stay who you are! Stay committed! Don’t give up! Your power is in your conviction! Rev. Jacquelyn Thompson – Assistant Pastor, Allen Temple Baptist Church, Oakland, CA
- The Tavis Smiley Show, Special Guest: Diane Nash, http://www.pbs.org/search/?q=%22Diane%20Nash%22, aired on 05.10.2011
- Definition of Freedom Riders, Wikipedia, www.wikipedia.org
- Anti-segregation activist inspires ‘Project Diane’ to change the way venture capitalists think, Michael del Castillo in Upstart Business Journal Technology & Innovation Editor, February 5, 2015, http://upstart.bizjournals.com/entrepreneurs/hot-shots/2015/02/05/anti-segregation-activist-inspires-project-diane.html?page=all
- Years after change, activist lives her convictions, USA Today, Guest post by Heidi Hall, The (Nashville) Tennessean, March 26, 2013, http://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation/2013/03/26/nashville-civil-rights-diane-nash/2023301/