Not everyone is born to lead. Not everyone has greatness thrust upon them. Not everyone lives in remarkable times. For Diane Nash of Chicago, she did all three in just a short span of time. Diane Nash’s life changed when she left Chicago behind in the late 1950s to go to college – first at Howard University in Washington, and then at Fisk University in Nashville. There in Tennessee, the young coed met Southern segregation for the first time. As a result, she became a leader in fighting against segregation. Nashville and that fight came to define the rest of her life and helped changed the nation.
Born in Chicago in 1938, Diane grew up on the south side in a middle class neighborhood and attended Catholic schools. While her father was overseas during World War II, her grandmother, Carrie Bolton, helped raised her and became a huge influence on how Diane looked at the world and treated other human beings. Her grandmother taught her that no one person was better than any other. After World War II ended, her father came home, her parent’s marriage ended, her mother remarried, and yet her Grandmother still remained in her life.
Even in that positive environment, Diane experienced racism and discrimination. However, racism in the North was more subtle than in the South. Most racism was unspoken. Diane experienced Northern racism whenever she tried to enter beauty pageants. She was denied entrance to several because of the color of her skin. She was even denied entrance to a charm school because it “was not equipped to handle Negroes.” She graduated with honors from Hyde Park High School. When it came time to pick a college, Diane chose Howard University in Washington, D.C. She later transferred to Fisk University in Nashville to major in English.
Heading South: The Sit-Ins
It was in Tennessee that Diane experienced a more “in-your-face” spoken and legislated form of racism. Diane writes:
In September 1959, I came to Nashville as a student at Fisk University. This was the first time I had been as far south as Tennessee; therefore it was the first time I had encountered the blatant segregation that exists in the South. I came to see the community in sin.
The controlling nature of this form of segregation was an affront to the young Nash, as if being slapped in the face constantly. From the signs in every place in society to being denied service in commercial parts of the city, Nash knew she had to do something. Her frustration at being treated so overtly turned to anger.
Under the guidance of James Lawson, Diane began to learn nonviolent forms of protest. As the young age of 22, Diane rose quickly into a leadership position in the newly formed Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee. At Fisk University, Diane’s natural leadership and stunning presence began to attract members to the organization. In early 1960, inspired by the Greensboro Four Sit-In in early February, Diane organized a sit-in in Nashville for late February.
Nash describes the scene:
The sit-ins were really highly charged, emotionally. In our nonviolent workshops, we had decided to be respectful of the opposition and try to keep the issues geared toward desegregation. And the first sit-in we had was really funny, because the waitresses were nervous. They must have dropped $2,000 worth of dishes that day! I mean, literally, it was almost a cartoon. I can remember one in particular. She was so nervous, she picked up the dishes and dropped one, and she’d pick up another one and drop it. It was really funny, and we were sitting there trying not to laugh, because we thought that laughing would be insulting. At the same time, we were scared to death.
When the police came, they arrested whoever was sitting at the counter. The police became perplexed quickly as the empty seats were soon filled with new protesters to arrest.
Nash explained her view of the Civil Rights Movement:
The Negro is seeking to take advantage of the opportunities that society offers; the same opportunities that others take for granted, such a cup of coffee at Woolworth’s, a good job, an evening at the movies, and dignity. Persons favoring segregation often refer to the rights of man, but they never mention the rights of Negro men.
The Sit-Ins drew national attention to the cause, but also to Diane. She knew the risks involved. As one of the few women in a leadership role, Diane spoke eloquently and forcefully for human dignity in ending segregation.
In leading a march to the steps of city hall in Nashville, Diane stood face-to-face with the mayor of Nashville, Ben West. Diane, calmly but firmly asked Mayor West, “…do you recommend that the lunch counters be desegregated?” To many people’s surprise, he answered “Yes.”
Spurred on by her success, Diane organized other protests in and around Nashville’s downtown economic center thereby desegregating the city through economic power and boycotts.
Showing such grace, style, and a steadfast approach to bridging the race barrier, Diane left Fisk without graduating. Her professors understood that she had a greater calling. Over the next five years, Diane Nash was at the center of the Civil Rights Movements greatest moments. She was also behind the scenes orchestrating them as well. She became a key strategist for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference from 1961-65.
Other Key Events
The leadership skills Diane learned at Fisk would serve her well in several other key moments in the movement. In Rock Hill, South Carolina, she was arrested in early 1961 and refused to pay bail – a strategy that she in part helped to plan in order to clog the jails. When arrested, Diane wanted Civil Rights protesters to not post bail but rather remain in jail and cause the local government to spend more money to house and feed them all. Not all agreed with her methods including her father who sent these telegrams to President Kennedy.
In 1962, while six months pregnant, Diane refused to post bail and was sentenced to two years in jail. She said, “I believe that if I go to jail now it may help hasten that day when my child and all children will be free – not only on the day of their birth but for all their lives.” A judge was none too happy and commuted her term to ten days.
Diane was also a strategist for the Freedom Rides that included her then husband, James Bevel. Her she explains the event and strategies:
Here is a letter she wrote to the Kennedy Administration about actions taken in Mississippi against the riders.
While many of the riders served several months in jail, her leadership garnered the attention of the President Kennedy. She was named by President Kennedy to a committee that began the Civil Rights Act. She later worked for the SCLC in Selma in 1965 and spoke out against Vietnam in 1967.
The leadership skills she learned in Nashville served her well throughout her life and have helped many people. She reflected on those times by saying:
The movement had a way of reaching inside me and bringing out things that I never knew were there. Like courage, and love for people. It was a real experience to be seeing a group of people who would put their bodies between you and danger. And to love people that you work with enough that you would put your body between them and danger […] But when the time came to go to jail, I was far too busy to be afraid. And we had to go, that’s what happened. I think it’s really important that young people today understand that the movement of the sixties was really a people’s movement. The media and history seem to record it as Martin Luther King’s movement, but young people should realize that it was people just like them, their age, that formulated goals and strategies, and actually developed the movement. When they look around now, and see things that need to be changed, they should say: “What can I do?”
When the Civil Rights Movement began to wane, Diane returned home to Chicago where she still lives. She has spent the last 45 years working tirelessly to help people find affordable housing, taught in the Chicago Public Schools, and is an advocate for Civil Rights. She tours the country and is a highly sought after public speaker.
Diane Nash’s experiences were unique because of the remarkable times, but her leadership also helped to make them remarkable. Her strategies meant that some would die and that she was putting her own life at risk for freedoms denied. When most of the leaders of the movement were men, she, as a woman, stood out as an inspiration. Her distinct style, manner, grace, and forthright ability to find solutions made her an excellent leader. She is a true heroine.
Women and the Civil Rights Movement
The Children by David Halberstam
Freedom’s Daughters: The Unsung Heroines of the Civil Rights Movement from 1830 to 1970