Pilgrim Pathways: Notes for a Diaspora People

Incarnational Discipleship

Peacemaker Profiles # 2: Diane Nash

Diane Nash (1938 -), Unsung Heroine of the Civil Rights Movement
by Michael Westmoreland-White

In the 20th Century, nonviolent mass movements began to build upon the experiences of earlier movements. This is abundantly clear in the case of the many connections between Gandhi and the Indian Freedom Struggle and the U.S. Civil Rights Movement (or African-American Freedom Struggle). The experiences of the Indian Freedom Struggle were reported and analyzed closely by Black newspapers in the U.S., newspapers that were distributed far outside their primary geographical circulation in the lobbies of the Black Church, African American barber shops and beauty salons, and in local chapters of the NAACP. Further, numerous African-American leaders traveled to India and met with Gandhi or (after Gandhi’s 1948 assassination) colleagues at Gandhi’s ashram. One such African-American was a young Methodist ministerial student whose pacifist convictions led him to become a conscientious objector to the Korean War, one of the first African-Americans to be granted C.O. status by the Selective Service Board. This young man was James Lawson and he studied organized nonviolence in India before returning to the United States to finish seminary. Lawson had hoped to do graduate studies at Harvard University, but Martin Luther King, Jr. convinced him that the Civil Rights movement needed him in the South. So, Lawson enrolled as a graduate student in theology at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, TN, one of the few prestigious institutions of the South willing to admit a few black students yearly.

Nashville was part of the segregated South, but not quite as virulently racist as many more cities deeper in the South. For instance, Nashville boasted of being the home of several African-American institutions of higher learning: Tennessee State University, The American Baptist Theological Seminary, Meherry Medical College, and Fisk University. In the Fall semester of 1959, Lawson began offering workshops in nonviolence for the students of these institutions on the premises of First Colored Baptist Church (whose pastor, Kelly Miller Smith, was a member of the Fellowship of Reconciliation, an interfaith organization dedicated to nonviolence) and Clark Memorial United Methodist Church, near the campus of Vanderbilt Divinity School. A white student at Fisk University named Paul LaPrad told a young woman at Fisk named Diane Nash of these workshops and she soon joined a small group of African-American students whose names would read like a Who’s Who of future Civil Rights leaders: Bernard Lafayette, John Lewis, and James Bevel. By November, Nash had become the unofficial leader of the group.

Diane Judith Nash was a light-skinned African-American woman with green eyes who had been born and raised in Chicago. Although used to the racism of the North, she knew of the more blatant indignities heaped on African-Americans only through the stories of her father, who was from the deep South. In Chicago, Nash had even won several beauty pageants over white rivals as a teen, something that would never have been allowed in the South. She came from a middle-class Catholic family and had, at one time, even considered becoming a nun. Instead she enrolled as an English major at Howard University in Washington, D.C., before transferring to Fisk University in Nashville in 1959. In Nashville, Nash had found the segregated restrictions overwhelming and personally degrading. So, although she was initially skeptical about Gandhian nonviolence, she joined Lawson’s workshops determined to challenge Nashville’s Jim Crow laws. Some of those workshops took place at Highlander Folk School in Monteagle, TN, a center for popular education for social change founded by a white Christian radical named Myles Horton. At Highlander, Nash met and learned from Septima Clark, a 60 year old organizer of unions and educator in voter registration for the NAACP, white ministers Glenn Smiley (United Methodist, an organizer for the Fellowship of Reconciliation or F.O.R.) and Will D. Campbell (Baptist, a liason between the National Council of Churches and the Civil Rights movement), and other African-American leaders like Martin Luther King, Jr. and C. T. Vivian.

Back in Nashville, it was time to put these workshops to use, especially as nationally the Civil Rights movement was in a stall. On 7 February 1960, the students began the Sit-In Movement in Nashville, attempting to be served at the lunch counters of downtown department stores such as Woolworth. As the sit-ins continued, the press soon began to focus on Nash as a spokesperson because she was articulate and poised in front of cameras, doubtless due in part to her past in beauty pageants. The exposure placed her in extra danger. She once overheard white teenage hoodlums mutter, “That’s her. Nash. She was on TV. She’s the one to get.” Indeed, when white mob violence was released on the sit-ins, Nash was sometimes singled out for violence. But as a practitioner of nonviolence, she found courage in herself that she didn’t know she possessed. When the students decided not to accept bail or pay the $50 fines for their arrests (or allow others to pay them), Nash was chosen to explain their decision in court. She addressed the judge with respect, but without the fawning subservience Southern whites expected of African-Americans. “We feel that if we pay these fines we would be contributing to and supporting the injustice and immoral practices that have been performed in the arrest and conviction of the defendants.”

By April 1960, the sit-ins had cost Nashville tourist dollars and the downtown sector was suffering as whites stayed in the suburbs rather than shop downtown. The mayor, Ben West, tried to intervene and negotiate a compromise. He addressed a crowd of African-Americans (with small numbers of white supporters) and told them of his attempts at negotiating with the lunch-counter owners. He suggested at the end that they all pray together. Nash spoke up. “What about eating together?” West replied, “We should also try to arrange that.” Nash: “Then, Mayor, do you recommend that the lunch counters be desegregated?” Put on the spot, West answered, “Yes.” The crowd erupted in cheers. Soon the lunch counters were desegregated and the movement went on to successfully challenge segregation at Nashville’s movie theaters and churches.

Toward the end of 1960, the Nashville students began to communicate with student movements in other Southern cities, notably in North Carolina. They decided to create an organized movement for the entire South and named it, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee or SNCC, which members and others alike began calling “SNICK.” Diane Nash left college to work full-time as a SNCC field worker. At first, SNCC had two branches, one for voter registration work and one for nonviolent direct action. Nash led the direct action wing of SNCC, along with her old friends John Lewis, Bernard Lafayette, and James Bevel, to whom she would soon be married.

In 1961, CORE (the Congress of Racial Equality), led by James Farmer, revived a nonviolent strategy they had successfully used in 1940, the “Freedom Rides” in which white and black activists rode interstate buses (Greyhound and Trailways, then separate companies) together into the South where segregated seating was still the law. Federal laws demanding desegregation on interstate buses and in bus stations were not enforced. The Freedom Riders were to test compliance. In the deep South, they encountered mob violence that injured several of the Riders and threatened to destroy the rides. Nash contacted SNCC for students to take up the rides by substituting for injured CORE riders. She herself rode one of the buses into Mississippi where she endured both mob violence and imprisonment.

After this, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), the organization founded and headed by Martin Luther King, Jr., hired Nash and James Bevel as field workers and liaison with SNCC, seeking to bridge the trust gap between the more militant (but still nonviolent) students and the older and more moderate leaders (mostly African American ministers) of SCLC. She also tried to build bridges to the NAACP which considered both SNCC and SCLC to be far too radical. NAACP had been committed to a strategy of legal challenge in the courts and was threatened by the nonviolent direct action campaigns. In these roles, Diane Nash Bevel was more than competent. Her articulate speaking bridged communication gaps between the various civil rights organizations and her good looks frankly charmed most of the (male) leaders of other organizations.

Nash was to learn the suffering that comes with nonviolent action in oppressive contexts. In May 1962, she was jailed in Jackson, Mississippi, for teaching black children the tools of nonviolent direct action, just as she had learned them from Lawson and others. She was four months pregnant, but was still sentenced to 2 years’ imprisonment. On appeal, Nash only served a short time before release. Nash was also a major organizer for the 1963 campaign in Birmingham. Despite all these leadership roles, the sexism of both the press and the major civil rights organizations soon eclipsed her. In the 1963 March on Washington, not one woman was scheduled to speak. Nash was introduced by A. Philip Randolph, chair of the march, as “one of the outstanding women of the civil rights struggle,” but she was expected to fade into the background sweetly after that introduction.

Nash continued to play a vital role in the Freedom Movement. It was Nash who designed the plan used by the SCLC for their successful campaign in Selma, AL, in 1965. She also became a liaison to the peace movement and the early actions of the women’s movement. After 1965, however, Nash seemed to cut all ties to the SCLC and SNCC. SNCC had changed leadership that year, and its new head, Stokely Carmichael, took SNCC away from a commitment to nonviolence under his leadership to embrace the slogan “Black Power,” which he coined. The continued sexism of the SCLC and its dominance by clergy also alienated Nash.

Today, Nash, now divorced from James Bevel because of his serial adulteries, has returned to Chicago, completed her education, and is an educator. She has yet to write a “movement memoir,” but gave a full interview in 1998 that became part of the book, Free At Last? The Civil Rights Movement and the People Who Made It by Fred Powledge (Boston: Little, Brown, 1991). Nash remains involved in quiet ways in organizations working for racial justice and reconciliation and with the peace movement. She has remained committed to nonviolence as a way of life.


August 22, 2010 - Posted by | biographies, blog series, civil rights leaders, heroes, History, peace, racial justice

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