Diane Nash began her 50 year career as a civil rights activist while she was still a student. Photograph: Leigh Vogel/Getty Images
She led the lunch counter protests and organized the Freedom Riders in the 60s. What does civil rights veteran Diane Nash think of today’s campaigners?
This article titled “Diane Nash: ‘Non-violent protest was the most important invention of the 20th century'” was written by Jamiles Lartey in Chicago, for theguardian.com on Thursday 6th April 2017 13.00 UTC
More than a half-century later, Diane Nash can still hear the sound of the nights she spent alone in that Mississippi jail cell.
“There was an insect in that jail so big, that late at night, when everything was quiet, you could hear it walking across the floor,” Nash said. “I remember telling myself, ‘I am going to imprint this in my memory’.”
Just 24 years old and about five months pregnant, Nash was found in contempt of court by a Mississippi judge for refusing to move to the back of his court, as convention in the segregated South demanded in 1961.
“I was scared the whole time,” Nash chuckles softly in the retelling. “But here’s the thing– you had to do what was required or you had to tolerate segregation. And whenever I obeyed a segregation law I felt like I was agreeing that I was too inferior to do what the general population did.”
This principled commitment to equality fuelled Nash through a civil and human rights career spanning decades in the American South and in her hometown of Chicago. And while her contributions are sometimes overlooked in re-tellings of the movement in favour of some of the more ostentatious male participants, few leaders from the earliest days of the movement have been as driven, unflinching and courageous as Diane Nash.
Clinging to Truth
“My biggest problem these days is my schedule” she said, mixing sugar and cream into a coffee. Nash arrived to speak with the Guardian, hair wrapped in a scarf, on a blustery Chicago day sandwiched between other commitments. At 78 she moves a bit slower these days she concedes, but she doesn’t stop moving.
Born and raised in the northern city of Chicago, Nash moved to the heart of the Jim Crow South as a young woman to attend Fisk University during the late 1950s. Almost immediately, the culture shock gave way to outrage at the overt racial segregation that had defined life for black Americans in cities like Nashville, Tennessee for generations.
Nash had planned to study English and hoped to become a secondary school teacher after graduation. “Then I got in the movement, and I knew that was my vocation – it became very clear,” Nash said.
A few years earlier another young activist, James Lawson, had moved to the south at the insistence of Martin Luther King Jr to begin training students in nonviolent resistance. Lawson had studied Satyagraha, Gandhi’s philosophy of nonviolent resistance during his time in Nagpur, India as a missionary. Satyagraha roughly translates to “clinging to truth.” In Nashville, his students would role-play the experience of being jeered, insulted and even physically attacked during sit-ins to prepare them for nonviolent demonstration.
Nash began attending the workshops and initially was unconvinced.“I grew up in this violent [American] society, so I felt like of course nonviolence is not as powerful as violence,” Nash said. “But I kept going to the workshops because I couldn’t find anyone else who was trying to do anything else.”
Still, her diligence and efficiency as an organiser rapidly launched Nash into a leadership role with the local Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, or Sncc, the nascent youth civil rights organisation that was forming to put Lawson’s teaching into practice with direct action campaigns.
“I was nominated to be the chairperson. I declined. I was afraid because I thought we’re coming up against southern white racists who are in their 40s and 50s and are politicians and businessmen – and who are we? 18 and 20 year old students? So I kept declining, but they insisted.”
And it’s a good thing they did, because Nash flourished in the role. With her at the helm, Sncc orchestrated the 1960 sit-ins at Nashville lunch counters that ended with the city becoming the first in the South to desegregate those spaces. Students, well-dressed and scrupulously trained in nonviolence would, over a four month campaign, show up to a segregated lunch counter, sit down and wait to be served. The young demonstrators included in their ranks former Washington DC mayor Marion Barry, Georgia Congressman John Lewis and James Bevel – the activist and minister who Nash would later marry.
Nash admits now that she was afraid. But the first few demonstrations ended without incident as the counter waitstaff would simply refuse to serve students or close. Eventually though, white racists started showing up to the demonstrations, heckling and jeering the black students – on more than one occasion, pulling them from seats, and assaulting them. The police tacitly endorsed the behaviour, reliably failing to pursue white assailants, and instead arresting the students on loitering and disorderly conduct charges.
The protest came to a head in April of 1960 with Nash in the driver’s seat. After thousands gathered for a silent march through the streets of Nashville, Nash confronted mayor Ben West on the steps of city hall.
“[She] asked me some pretty soul searching questions,” West later recalled. “And one that was addressed to me as a man, I tried as best as I could to answer it frankly and honestly. I could not agree that it was morally right for someone to sell them merchandise and refuse them service, and I had to answer it exactly that way.”
Three weeks later, the city’s business owners had agreed to voluntarily desegregate lunch counters, and many cited Mayor West’s answer to Nash in their explanation of why. It had been four years since the Civil Rights Movement had begun in earnest with the Montgomery Bus Boycott, and another three years until it would reach its climax with the March on Washington. Nash was right in the thick of it all, and was becoming convinced that nonviolence was the way she could be most effective as an activist and advocate.
“Now I don’t use it as a tactic. I use it because I believe there was no more important invention of the 20th century than Gandhi’s inventing a way to wage war and to make social change without killing and maiming our fellow human beings,” Nash said.
“Who the Hell is Diane Nash?”
Those were the first words that John Seigenthaler, assistant to the attorney general heard in 1961 when he picked up the phone. On the other end was his boss, Robert Kennedy Jr, head of the justice department and brother of President John F Kennedy.
Kennedy was calling because Sncc along with the Congress for Racial Equality (Core) were in the midst of organising freedom rides throughout the South, putting black and white Americans on segregated buses mostly starting off in northern cities destined for segregated southern ones.
Seigenthaler called Nash at his boss’s insistence and warned her that the freedom rides were likely to get someone killed. In the same soft-spoken but steadfast tone she uses today, Nash told Seigenthaler that the riders were well aware of the risks, but that they could not let the principles of nonviolence be pushed off course by the threat of violence.
“You know that spiritual ‘like a tree standing by the water, I will not be moved?’ She would not be moved,” recalled Seigenthaler in the PBS special Freedom Riders.
This dogged persistence, tempered by a measured, even warm demeanor, was a hallmark throughout Nash’s civil rights career. She recalled how that same Kennedy administration, which was lukewarm at best to the freedom riders, tried to offer her and other organisers the promise of federal money if they would only end the freedom rides and shift their attention to the less contentious work of voter registration. Nash was adamant.
“I used to have a friend who said ‘whose bread you eat is whose song you sing’. If your organisation is dependent on a certain group of people that’s giving you money all the time, you’re eventually going to have to do what they tell you,” Nash said.
“We had made it that far without their money, so I wanted to stay independent. The Kennedys were in the executive branch of government, and it was their job to enforce the law,” Nash continued. “If they had done their job we wouldn’t have to have been risking our lives.”
The men Nash worked with in the moment didn’t always share her principled resolve. Many cut deals with the administration that they would not be drafted if they would agree to disengage from freedom rides. “I let those men torment me to the extent that I started getting dizzy spells,” Nash said.
Nash wound up in jail a number of times during the 1960s, like almost everyone in the movement. Usually the activists were released in short order, but in 1961 Nash faced the possibility of a two year sentence in Mississippi. The state had concluded that by training college students to take non-violent action she was encouraging the delinquency of minors.
Nash was given the choice by state officials to either leave, or serve the two years, but to her it wasn’t much of a choice at all. “It’s just a matter of decency. If I encourage you to do something at great sacrifice, and I leave you before we’ve finished the fight? Dangggg!” she says now with a chuckle.
Nash showed up at the courthouse well prepared for the prospect of going jail. Mentally she had spent three days in prayer, meditation and deep thought about the ordeal that laid ahead. “At the end of those three days there was nothing anybody could do to me,” Nash said.
But she wasn’t prepared to submit to the indignity of Jim Crow. She sat in the court’s front rows, refused to move when instructed by the bailiff, and was sentenced to ten days for contempt of court.
“That was to try to intimidate you. But it had the opposite effect, I learned I could exist with virtually nothing,” Nash said.
Materially she had come prepared too: A spare set of clothes, a toothbrush, a hairbrush. Unsurprisingly, jailers didn’t allow her to have any of it, nor did they provide her with any jail-issued essentials.
Nash figured out a system to rotate her one set of clothes and keep them washed. She brushed her hair and teeth with her hand and fingers. She flipped her sleep schedule. There were less disturbances if she slept in the day. At night she would sit up awake in her cot – pregnant stomach in view – fending off the cockroaches that would drop from the ceiling.
State officials desperately wanted to get rid of Nash and then husband Bevel, who were having success registering poor black Americans in the Mississippi Delta region to vote. Many still worked for near-starvation wages on white-owned plantations as servants or sharecroppers, and were frequently reprimanded by lost wages or even jobs and homes when employers learned they were trying to assert their constitutional right to the franchise.
But much to her surprise, after the ten days, the judge simply let the matter of her initial charge and the two year sentence go. Nash speculates that the tap Mississippi officials kept on her and Bevel’s phone bizarrely worked to her benefit. They had surely heard Nash had alerting prominent national civil rights groups about her situation, along with movement-aligned celebrities like Harry Belafonte. The prospect of national attention on a high-profile pregnant inmate was enough of a public relations nightmare to temper the state’s interest in stopping Nash’s work.
“I told them if they let me go I’d go back to exactly what I was doing … and I told them where to find me if they decided to call the case.”
We’d Still Be Waiting
Nash carried on her activism throughout the 1960s, eventually expanding, as many in civil rights did, to the peace and anti-war movements. In 1966 she travelled to North Vietnam as part of an all-female envoy invited by the Vietnam Women’s Union. In the 70s she began working in Chicago as a housing rights advocate, organising low-income tenants struggling with basic needs like heat and working fixtures. This was a profound adjustment for Nash. “There was such commitment in the south … and I was used to that in the people I worked with,” she said. The non-profit world, with its careerists, reporting standards and bureaucracy was a challenge.
Today, Nash may not maintain the kind of high profile she had facing off with mayors and feds, but her moral compass and dedication to civil rights remain unchanged. Last year she was one of the fundraisers who helped raise money for a private autopsy of Rexdale Henry, a Native American activist found dead in a jail cell under suspicious circumstances.
She still helps coordinate an annual memorial and celebration of the lives of Andrew Goodman, Michael Henry Schwerner and James Earl Chaney three civil rights workers slain in Mississippi in 1964. Before they were murdered by white racists, the trio were held in the same Philadelphia, Mississippi jail where Henry died some 50 years later.
She has kept an eye on Black Lives Matter and student protests across the US. And while she might have some tactical advice to share if they were to ask, her position is staunch. “I support them. Enthusiastically,” Nash said.
They support her, too. “Diane Nash was one of the architects of the civil rights movement,” said Patrisse Cullors, one of the three women who co-founded the Black Lives Matter Network. “Her contributions define the courage of black women the world over. I am grateful to be a part of a legacy of black women who’ve dared to stand up and fight against racism and sexism. We wouldn’t have the brilliant direct action of the Montgomery boycotts or Selma if it weren’t for Ms. Nash. She changed America.”
Nash is still not afraid to be blunt. When the conversation turned to the election, Nash didn’t hesitate: “I don’t want to talk about those crazy people. None of them.” Nash offered a degree of support to hometown incumbent Barack Obama in 2012, but also critiqued him sharply for maintaining US involvement in two wars. She says as long as Citizens United stands, US politics faces serious limitations. “Voting is important, but it is not sufficient,” Nash said.
“Unfortunately, many Americans have left it to elected officials to do what needs to be done in society, and that won’t work. I think the students who are marching today understand that,” Nash added. “Can you imagine if we had waited for elected officials to desegregate lunch counters and to get the right to vote in the South? 50-some years later I think we’d still be waiting.”
This is the third in a series of interviews with women who changed our world.
- Indira Jaising: ‘In India you can’t even dream of equal justice. Not at all’
- Valentina Tereshkova: The first woman in space. ‘People shouldn’t waste money on wars’
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