Sunday, April 3, 2016

Diane Nash, Civil Rights Leader

Diane in Chicago, IL. Johnson Publishing Co.
Diane Nash was a civil rights leader and organizer in the South during the violent events of the 1960s. She played an essential role in the in 1960 Nashville sit-ins, the Freedom Rides of 1961, and the Selma Voting Rights campaign of 1965.

"A lot of people say, oh you're so brave, and think I wasn't afraid, but that is not true - I was really, really afraid." ~ Diane Nash

Diane Nash was born on May 15th, 1938 in Chicago, Illinois to Leon Nash and Dorothy Bolton Nash. She attended public school in Chicago and graduated from Hyde Park High School in 1956, before beginning her college career at Washington D.C.'s Howard University.

From Howard, Diane transferred to Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee, where she would have her first encounter with the segregated South.

In the South at that time, segregation laws known as "Jim Crow" established a formal and coded system of racial apartheid. In place since the 1890s, the laws affected nearly every aspect of daily life, ensuring the races were separate within schools, parks, restaurants, restrooms, buses, trains, and libraries. In case one forgot, the large signs designating "Whites Only" and "Colored" were constant reminders of the racial order.

Diane was disturbed by these laws and began learning more about non-violent protest, attending a workshop led by Reverend James Lawson. She began participating at impromptu sit-ins at Nashville's downtown lunch counters to protest their exclusionary policies, and due to her experience at these protests and for her views, she was elected Chairperson of the Student Central Committee.

Said Diane in an interview for Makers.com:"I did not want to be Chairperson. I was afraid to be Chairperson. We're facing white, racist businessmen and politicians, and who are we? A group of students! 18, 19, 20 years old!"

By February of 1960, organized mass sit-ins at lunch counters were taking place in cities across the South, starting in Greensboro, North Carolina. As described by Diane, "It was possible for blacks to get food from a restaurant on a carry-out basis, but you couldn't sit in the restaurant and eat it. I found that humiliating."

By now the Student Central Committee had grown to over 300 black and white students, and they began preparing carefully for their own sit-in in Nashville on February 13th, 1960. They would target six counters. As recalled by Diane, the group believed in non-violent protest and did not want to been seen as trying to exert their power over anyone else.

The purpose of the sit-in was not to exert power, but to change minds - and they decided that if sincere questions were asked of the protesters, they wanted to answer them, but it had to be orderly - so they picked one spokesperson for every counter.

As with all of their demonstrations, they also set a dress code, as they knew one of reasons given by segregationist white people as to why they didn't want to sit next to a black person was because Negroes were dirty and smelly - so the women wore dresses, and the young men wore suits and ties. Their plan was to sit politely and quietly at the counter, and if anyone asked them a question, the student would direct them to that group chairperson, but they would otherwise not speak or move.

Diane Nash singing with demonstrators in front of a Nashville PD, 1960
Credit: Nashville Tennessean
As Chairperson, Diane's job was to go from counter to counter at the different sit-ins. As she walked from one sit-in to another one day, she saw a group of white men in leather jackets and heard one of them say "That's Diane Nash. She's the one to get."

As described by Diane, this made her overwhelmed with fear, "...and for the next few minutes I realized that my mind was on my own fear, and not on being effective." To gather herself in the moment, Diane decided to set a time limit for herself, that might allow her to process her fear. She felt that "by the end of those few minutes, I will either have gotten myself together enough that I can do my job well, or I'm going to go back to the church - that was our headquarters - and resign."

Diane was able to gather herself sufficiently in those few minutes to be able to continue, and she carried on with her job as chairperson, and with the sit-ins.

Two weeks after the first sit-in the group was attacked by an angry mob. The protesters had prepared for that possibility and had pledged to be non-violent, so they did not fight back when attacked. After the attackers fled the protesters were arrested, and they got up and walked calmly to the patrol wagon. By the time went back inside to the counter, a new row of protestors had walked up and sat down.

In April 19th, 1960 the violence got worse, and a bomb exploded in the home of the students' attorney. That same day the students organized a march to City Hall. It was a silent march of several thousand people.

Nash and C. T. Vivian lead a demonstration march to City Hall, TN.
Credit: The Nashville Tennessean
When they arrived at City Hall Diane spoke to the Major, Ben West, asking him directly, "Mayor West, do you feel that it's wrong to discriminate against a person, solely on the basis of his race or color?"

Explained the Mayor later that day to reporters, "I could not agree that it was morally right for someone to refuse them service - and I had to answer it just that way."

As a result of Diane's efforts, Nashville Mayor Ben West called for the desegregation of Nashville's lunch counters in early April, and on May 10th, 1960 Nashville became the first southern city to desegregate lunch counters.

The Freedom Riders

Following the Nashville sit-ins, Diane helped co-ordinate the 1961 Freedom Rides across the Deep South.

At that time, "travel in the segregated South for black people was humiliating," recalled Diane Nash in her interview for Freedom Riders, the movie. "The very fact that there were separate facilities was to say... that blacks were so subhuman and so inferior that we could not even use the public facilities that white people used."

In 1946, the Supreme Court had struck down segregated seating on interstate buses, but many states in the South refused to observe the ruling. To protest the continued segregation and exercise their constitutional rights, an integrated group of "Freedom Riders" took trips by public bus and train across the country.

Freedom riders had their bus burned near Anniston, AL by the KKK and their supports, who threw a firebomb into the bus, then held the doors closed to prevent the Riders from escaping, until the door was broken down (May 13th, 1961). That same day, bystanders and Freedom Riders were attacked at the busy station in Birmingham, AL, where a KKK mob savagely beat them with chains, iron pipes, and clubs.

Freedom Rider bus firebombed by the KKK in Alabama, May 13, 1061
Credit: Joe Postiglione, Anniston Star
When their bus drivers refused to continue, the Freedom Riders would find alternative methods of travel to get to the next stop, then would continue on their journey from there. In Birmingham, AL on May 16th a new group of Riders was arrested and jailed. In Montgomery, AL on May 19th, Freedom Riders were met at the bus station by an angry mob and attacked, while the local police department and Police Chief chose not to intervene.

Every time the campaign was faced with violence and seemed like it would be forced to end, news ways were found to sustain the movement. Rider Joan Trumpaurer-Mulholland recalled, "We were past fear. If we were going to die, we were going to die, but we can't stop. If one person falls, others take their place."

Diane's role in the Freedom Rides was as Coordinator of the Nashville Student Movement Ride from Nashville to Alabama. She monitored the Riders' progress, recruited new Riders, communicated with the press, and worked to gain the support of national Movement leaders and the federal government.

Even following the bus burning in Anniston, AL and the riot in Birmingham, Diane knew it was their duty to continue.

"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," says Nash in Freedom Riders (2012).

John Seigenthaler (then Assistant to Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy) recalls a conversation he had with Diane where he tried to convince the Freedom Riders not to continue to Alabama, as there was violence ahead. Diane replied that the Riders had signed their last wills and testaments prior to departure in Tennessee.

"She in a very quiet but strong way gave me a lecture," Seigenthaler recalled.

More than 470 people would take part in the
Freedom Rides in the summer of 1961.
Over 300 were arrested.
After five months of violence, all of which was reported around the country on the front page of the newspapers, the federal government gave in. On September 22nd 1961, the Interstate Commerce Commission issued an order that segregation on bus and rail platforms and in their seating would be ended. While pockets of racial resistance continued to exist for several years after, this was seen as the first unambiguous victory in the history of the Civil Rights movement.

"Contributing to the delinquency of minors"

In 1961 Diane married civil rights activist and Freedom Rider James Bevel, and together they moved to Jackson, Mississippi. The couple made a strong team, and began organizing voter registration and school desegregation campaigns.

In 1962 Diane was arrested in Jackson for giving nonviolent workshops to young people who wanted to participate in the ongoing Freedom Rides. Diane was charged contributing to the delinquency of minors, a charge that carried a two-and-a-half year jail term.

She was four months pregnant but decided to serve the sentence rather than leave Mississippi, as that is what she felt the authorities were trying to get her to do. Explained Diane, her husband and she had become "quite effective at encouraging black people to try to register to vote."

After surrendering to the court and standing trial, she sat on the front bench in the courtroom, but the bailiff ordered her to the back, to the seating for black people. Diane thought she was about to serve a two-and-a-half year sentence and see her first baby born in jail, so she didn't see why she should move. She was found in contempt of court.

Diane had reached out to all the NAACP chapter members prior to surrendering to the court, and as the phones were tapped, the police found out that Diane was expecting a baby. She isn't sure if they just decided it would be "more trouble than it was worth" to pursue the sentence, and they let her go after jailing her for ten days.

SCLC and Full-Time Activism

By 1961 Nash had dropped out of college to become a full-time organizer, strategist, and instructor for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). During the early 1960s Diane and her husband worked on different civil rights campaigns within the SCLS and played a key role in the Selma Right-To-Vote movement of 1963, which eventually led to the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

In 1965, Diane Nash and James Bevel received the Rosa Parks award from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. for their contributions to that movement.

Diane joined the Vietnam Peace Movement in 1966, and has stayed involved in political and social activism, returning to Chicago to work in education, real estate, and fair housing advocacy.

She continues to speak out for the movement and the principles of non-violent protest. At a Black History Month event in 2012 hosted by the GVSU Office of Multi-Cultural Affairs, Diane stressed that voting is not enough to bring about change:

“Elected officials do not and will not bring about the change that we need. Can you imagine if we had waited for elected officials to desegregate the south? Those changes never would have come about."

Additional Quotes from Diane Nash on leadership:

"The movement had a way of reaching inside you and bringing out thing even you didn't know were there."

"Charismatic leadership as we've known it has not freed black people, and it never will. Because instead of being a vehicle to liberation, it really is a symptom of social illness. For an adult to think that he or she needs is a leader - someone to tell them them what to do, and all they have to do is do it - is a serious problem. My thought about leadership is more task-oriented. Somebody needs to keep up with the money, and account for it. Somebody needs to come into the meeting with an agenda, and to call on people. I think the kind of leadership that has to do with ego and being ordained the leader and staying the leader is deficient. I think movements should be issue-led, not personality-led."

For Further Information:

Freedom Riders Film, PBS.org - watch online or read the transcript
Diane Nash on Makers.com - watch online

Sources:

Freedom Riders,PBS.org
Former Freedom Rider and SNCC member Diane Nash talks about direct action at DVSU,GRIID.org
"Buses Are A'Comin'" Freedom Riders: 1961, The History Pop

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