“Diane, you’ve gotten in with the wrong bunch.”
Those were the words that civil rights activist Diane Nash heard when her grandmother found out she was involved in the Civil Rights Movement in 1960. Imagine her grandmother’s surprise when she found out that Nash wasn’t just involved, but was leading the charge of the Nashville student sit-ins. Later, in fact, she would go on to help coordinate the Freedom Rides.
The response of Nash’s family was one that many others would express throughout her journey: fear. And with the violence and discrimination that was rampant throughout the country in the 1950s and ‘60s, it’s easy to see why.
Nash was born in 1938 and raised in Chicago, away from the strong racial divisions that saw African Americans treated as second-class citizens under Jim Crow laws in the South. It wasn’t until she enrolled at the historically black Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee, in 1959 that she came face-to-face with overt discrimination.
“There were signs that said white, white-only, colored. [The] library was segregated, the public library. Parks, swimming pools, hotels, motels,” she recalls. “I was at a period where I was interested in expanding: going new places, seeing new things, meeting new people. So that felt very confined and uncomfortable.”
Among the many facilities that weren’t available to Nash and her peers were restaurants that served black customers only on a “takeout basis,” which meant they weren’t allowed to sit and eat inside. Instead, black patrons were forced to eat along the curbs and alleys of Nashville during the lunch hour.
Nash couldn’t adhere to these rules. In her eyes, that would be agreeing with the unjust laws. But before she could take a stand against these restaurants—essentially protesting the government itself—she needed a plan of action. Enter Jim Lawson, an activist who had studied Gandhi’s nonviolent movement in India, and taught workshops on progress and change through nonviolence at a Methodist church near the university.
The spring after she enrolled at Fisk, just shy of 22 years old, Nash became a leader in the Nashville Student Central Committee, which organized sit-ins at discriminatory restaurants throughout the city. Faced with a fuming community that did everything in their power to remove the students, Nash encountered the frightening scenarios that she had prepared for during Lawson’s workshops.
Leading up to her first sit-in, in February 1960, Nash worried about being arrested. She’d voiced her concern in the workshops, saying that she’d help with phone calls and organizing but in the end, she would not go to jail. “But when the time came, I went,” she says, of the dozens of arrests she’d face in the not too distant future.
The success of the sit-ins on May 10 that year would make Nashville the first southern city to desegregate lunch counters in the country. But that was only the beginning for the young activist.
The same year, Nash traveled to Raleigh, North Carolina, to meet with other progressive students in the South and form the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). The organization would work with other major organizations within the Civil Rights Movement, including the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE).
In 1961, the Nashville Student Central Committee received a notice from CORE that they were beginning the Freedom Rides, a nonviolent protest to desegregate interstate bus travel and terminals that started in Washington, D.C., before making its way through southern states. The student activists offered to help in any way they could. It wouldn’t be long before they were called on to fulfill that request.
VIDEO: Diane Nash and Bree Newsome in Conversation: Diane Nash and Bree Newsome discuss past and present forms of civil rights activism in honor of Black History Month.
As the Freedom Rides went from one state to another, the participants found themselves in increasing danger from angry communities vehemently against the idea of integration. The aggression came to a head as the Freedom Rides reached Alabama. The buses were burned and the activists beaten on May 14, 1961, forcing them to retreat to New Orleans. From there, it was up to Nash to carry the torch with a new group of Freedom Riders.
“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,” she says. “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.”
So Nash and her peers continued the Freedom Rides, despite the objections of many powerful people, including Attorney General Robert Kennedy. Kennedy had instructed his assistant, John Seigenthaler, to speak directly with Nash in an attempt to call off the Freedom Rides. With so much bloodshed in Alabama, he urged the chairwoman to back down from the violence that undoubtedly awaited them on the trail.
“People understood very well what could happen,” says Nash, who explained to Seigenthaler that the participants in the Freedom Rides had given her sealed envelopes with their wills, in the event of their deaths. “Fortunately, I was able to return all those sealed envelopes.”
The Freedom Rides concluded in the fall of 1961 with yet another victory for the Civil Rights Movement; the Interstate Commerce Commission made segregated bus travel and terminals illegal, effective November 1st. However, Nash’s strength would again be tested when she faced law enforcement later that year. And this time, she was pregnant.
In 1961, Nash was arrested for “contributing to the delinquency of minors” after encouraging young people to fight for desegregated buses in Mississippi. At the time, she was living with her husband, James Bevel, in Jackson. The couple, who met through activism, had been spreading a message of nonviolence within the community.
Nash’s attorney had wrongly advised her that she did not need to appear in court, which resulted in a warrant for her arrest. Six months pregnant at the time, Nash went to court to surrender to the authorities. She was facing a two-year prison sentence.
“When I surrendered, I sat in the front seat of the courtroom and the bailiff told me to move back and I thought ‘I [might be here] for two years, I’m not moving anywhere,’” she says. “So they charged me with contempt of court for refusing to move to the back.”
The contempt of court sentence lasted for 10 days. While in jail, the only thing on Nash’s mind was her unborn child. She was determined to do everything she could so that her child would enter a world that was equal for all Americans, regardless of race.
After serving out her sentence for contempt, the judge declined to hear Nash’s other case. Nash believes the federal government tapped her telephone line and listened in when she told organizations in the Civil Rights Movement that she was pregnant and headed to jail for up to two years. On the heels of the horrific imagery of the bloodied and beaten Freedom Riders that had been spread far and wide, they surmised that Mississippi didn’t want to find itself, once again, at the center of a national political debate.
As a result, the government reduced Nash’s sentence for “contributing to the delinquency of minors” without formally addressing it. This left Nash in a predicament. She didn’t want the prejudiced justice system she had been fighting against to think that she was indebted to it. She was ready and willing to serve her full sentence, after all.
“When I got home, I wrote Judge Moore a certified return-receipt letter. I said, ‘In case you should change your mind and you want me, here’s where you can reach me,’” Nash recalls. And though the judge never took her up on the offer, Nash was always ready to do what was necessary to make a mark. To change the world, she says with a laugh, “sometimes you have to be bad.”