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Sun, 05.15.1938

Diane Nash, Activist born

Diane Nash

*Diane Nash was born on this date in 1938. She is a Black activist, lecturer, and businesswoman.

From Chicago, Illinois, Diane Judith Nash was raised in a middle-class Catholic family. She attended public and Catholic schools and considered becoming a nun when she grew up. Nash won several beauty contests as a teenager. She studied English at Howard University before transferring to Fisk University in 1959. Nash felt degraded by the racial prejudice she experienced at the Tennessee State Fair and elsewhere in Nashville. She began attending non-violent civil disobedience workshops led by the Rev. James Lawson.

She was one of the founders of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) of the American Civil Rights movement. At age 22, she became the unofficial leader of the 1960 sit-ins that desegregated lunch counters in Nashville, Tennessee, encouraged by sit-ins in February in Greensboro, North Carolina. With John Lewis, Nash led the protesters in a policy of refusing to pay bail on principle. Sentenced to pay a $50 fine for sitting at a whites-only lunch counter, Nash represented her fellow activists and told the judge, "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." When Nash provocatively asked the mayor on the steps of City Hall, "Do you feel it is wrong to discriminate against a person solely on the basis of their race or color?” the mayor admitted that he did. Within a few weeks, six lunch counters in Nashville were serving Blacks.

In 1961, she took over responsibility for the Freedom Rides from Birmingham, Alabama, to Jackson, Mississippi. The Congress of Racial Equality had conceived the rides, but after severe attacks, CORE's leader James L. Farmer, Jr., decided to cancel them. Nash argued that, "We can’t let them stop us with violence. If we do, the movement is dead." Nash also designed the strategy used by the SNCC in the Selma, Alabama, "Right to Vote" campaign and was also an important organizer for the 1963 campaign in Birmingham.

Originally fearful of being locked up, Nash was arrested dozens of times for her activities. She spent 30 days in a South Carolina jail after protesting segregation in Rock Hill in February 1961. In 1962, although she was four months pregnant, she was sentenced to two years in prison for teaching nonviolent tactics to children in Jackson, Mississippi, where she and husband James Bevel were living but was released on appeal after serving a shorter term.

President John F. Kennedy appointed her to a national committee that led to the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. She worked for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference under Martin Luther King, Jr. from 1961 to 1965. She served as an organizer, strategist, field staff person, race-relations staff person, and workshop instructor.  Nash later questioned the SCLC because of its dominance by males, especially clergymen. After 1965, she broke ties with the SNCC when it departed from its original nonviolent principles under its new leader Stokely Carmichael. In 1965, Martin Luther King gave the SCLC's highest award, the Rosa Parks Award, to Diane Nash and James Bevel. In 2003, Nash received the "Distinguished American Award" from the John F. Kennedy Library and Foundation, and in 2004, the LBJ Award for Leadership in Civil Rights from the Lyndon Baines Johnson Library and Museum.

Nash and James Bevel had two children before their divorce. Returning to Chicago, where she completed her education, Nash worked in fair housing advocacy, real estate, and as an educator and lecturer. She appears in the award-winning documentary film series Eyes on the Prize and is featured in David Halberstam's book The Children.  She attended the Selma 50th anniversary celebrations in 2015 yet was noticeably absent from re-staging the 1965 Selma march.  When asked about her refusal to participate in the historic event, Nash cited the attendance of former president George W. Bush.

Nash, who has dedicated her life to peace and nonviolence, declared that Bush "stands for just the opposite: For violence and war and stolen elections, and his administration…had people tortured." On July 7, 2022, Nash was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom. 

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