Women You Missed in History Class: Diane Nash

Diane Nash (1938- )

You might be asking, “Who the hell is Diane Nash?”  That’s exactly what U.S. Attorney General Robert Kennedy asked in 1961.  You may not have heard of her, but Diane Nash played a crucial role in the Civil Rights Movement.  Born May 15, 1938, Nash grew up in a middle-class Catholic household in Chicago.  As a young child, Nash was often left in the care of her grandmother, Carrie Bolton, who had a significant influence on Nash’s upbringing and values.  Bolton believed that racial prejudice was something that younger generations learned from their elders, and made a point of not talking about race with her young granddaughter.  She also raised Diane to understand her value as a person and have a strong sense of self-worth.  As a result, Nash was fairly sheltered from the realities of racism and segregation.  It wasn’t until she attended Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee that she was truly exposed to the reality of Jim Crow.

While at Fisk University, Nash became part of the Nashville student movement, participating in several sit-ins at segregated lunch counters.  Her calm, well-spoken manner and levelheadedness under pressure did not go unnoticed, and she quickly became a leader of the movement.  In an interview, Nash said, “I was never one to pick a fight, but I also wasn’t the type to back down.”  She displayed this unwillingness to back down time and time again during the Nashville sit-ins.  In April of 1960, she confronted Nashville’s mayor on the steps of City Hall and asked him, “Do you feel it is wrong to discriminate against a person solely on the basis of their race or color?”  He admitted he did, and shortly after, he called for the desegregation of Nashville’s lunch counters.  Nashville was the first southern city to desegregate its lunch counters.

Thanks to her work in Nashville, Diane Nash was one of the first students elected to a leadership position in SNCC.  In a movement that was largely dominated men, Nash rose through the ranks to become one of SNCC’s most prominent and valuable organizers.  She played a crucial role in organizing the Freedom Rides in 1961.  When the Freedom Rides organizers learned that a bus had been firebombed in Alabama, many were inclined to abandon the project, but Nash convinced them that it was their duty to continue.  She came to the attention of the Attorney General’s office, who wanted the Freedom Riders to stop their efforts and switch their focus back to voter registration.  John Seigenthaler, assistant to the Attorney General, called Nash to convince her of the danger, but Nash, as Seigenthaler recalls, “in a very quiet but strong way gave me a lecture.”  She spent the next several months working tirelessly to recruit more riders and make sure they all had everything they needed.

Nash was married to Civil Rights leader James Bevel for seven years, a marriage which produced two children.  Now 78, Diane Nash lives in Chicago, close to her son, Douglass.  In addition to her work with SNCC, she’s been active in the anti-war and women’s rights movements, and says her life and work are guided by doing “the next right thing.”  Though she may not be organizing Freedom Rides anymore, she still speaks out for social justice and inspires younger generations of activists who now take up the fight.


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