Diane Judith Nash was born on Chicago's South Side on May 15, 1938. Nash's father, Leon Nash, migrated north from Mississippi and held a clerical job in the military during World War II. Dorothy Bolton Nash, Diane's mother, also migrated north from her Tennessee birthplace. Raised by her grandmother, Carrie Bolton, until she was seven, Nash was taught to turn a blind eye toward racial injustice and strive to be a polite and accepting girl. Growing up, she attended the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament parochial school, which was operated by nuns who taught only minority students. Later she would attend public high school and go on to Washington, D.C., to begin her college career at Howard University. Soon after, in 1959, Nash decided to transfer to Fisk University in Nashville.
Although the racial climate in Chicago was by no means harmonious, Nash was still shocked by the severity of segregation in Nashville and throughout the South. Years later, in an interview she gave for the renowned civil rights documentary Eyes on the Prize, Nash stated that she understood the facts and stories surrounding segregation, but had no emotional relationship with the policy. It was only after she moved to the South and saw the signs that said "white" and "colored" and actually could not drink out of certain water fountains or was banned from certain ladies rooms that Nash said she had a real emotional reaction.
After a degrading encounter at the Tennessee State Fair, Nash vowed to seek out people and organizations intent on putting an end to segregation. Nash soon found that a man attending Vanderbilt Divinity School named James Lawson was organizing a series of workshops that added the methods of nonviolent protest to the arsenal of tactics used by young persons in their quest for equal rights.
At first, Nash was skeptical of the nonviolent approach, and she later confessed that it was years before she was convinced. After taking part in the workshops held under the auspices of the Nashville Christian Leadership Conference (NCLC), Nash was elected chair of the Student Central Committee. Although the workshops involved role-playing that often got rough, it was not until she and the other Nashville students staged sit-ins at the lunch counters of two of the city's department stores during November and December 1959 that she was given a chance to test the effectiveness of nonviolent protest. Nash, along with John Lewis, James Bevel, Marion Barry, and several others repeatedly bought items and attempted to sit at lunch counters. Unfortunately, the actions did not achieve the goal of desegregation. However, Nash and her fellow protesters did not give in easily.
It was not until the sit-in staged in Greensboro, North Carolina—by four students from North Carolina Agricultural and Technical College on February 1, 1960—that the sit-in movement was launched into the national spotlight. The Nashville student group attempted to desegregate Nashville's lunch counters once again, and this time they were successful. From February 13 to May 10, 1960, the Nashville sit-in movement directed protest at Kress, Woolworth's, McClellan's, Walgreens, and city bus terminals. At first, there was little resistance, but after two weeks, the 81 protesters were jailed for disorderly conduct. Although the NCLC and its allies raised enough bail money to release the students, they chose to stay in jail on principle.
After escalation of white violence, the students marched to City Hall and upon reaching the steps of the building, Nash confronted Mayor Ben West, asking: "Do you feel it is wrong to discriminate against a person solely on the basis of their race or color?" Mayor West confessed that he did. Nash and the student group she led had initiated desegregation of public places in Nashville, which became the first Southern city to begin departing from Jim Crow laws.
It was also during this time that Nash had the opportunity to become active with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) as it was beginning to take shape. From April 1960, Nash, along with James Bevel and Marion Barry, traveled to Raleigh, North Carolina, to attend a conference at Shaw University that would serve to solidify goals and unite all participants of the movement. It was here that Nash, who was one of the few young women leading the student movement, met the legendary Ella Baker, who became a much-needed female role model and source of confidence for Nash.
Instead of returning to Fisk to resume her traditional education, Nash devoted her time and energy to keeping the momentum of nonviolent protest going. Taking the helm of the Direct Action Committee of SNCC, Nash, along with Charles Sherrod, J. Charles Jones, and Ruby Doris Smith, traveled to Rock Hill, South Carolina, in early February 1961. While rallying support for nine students from Friendship College who had been convicted of trespassing and sentenced to 30 days of hard labor after participating in lunch counter sit-ins, Nash along with her companions were immediately arrested as well. She was sent to the York County Jail, where she penned a poignant letter-to-the-editor of the Rock Hill Herald stating that the protesters were only trying to help focus attention on a moral problem.
Nash also became involved with another sort of protest in the form of Freedom Rides. The first of the Freedom Rides began in Washington, D.C., in May 1961 with the purpose of testing enforcement of a Supreme Court ban on segregation in interstate bus travel and terminals. Discouraged by the levels of violence from Southern white mobs, some Freedom Riders wanted to abandon the endeavor, but Nash stepped in arguing that if they let them stop protesters with violence, then the movement would die. After this, Nash coordinated Freedom Rides from Birmingham, Alabama, to Jackson, Mississippi. In the end, U.S. Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy successfully urged the Interstate Commerce Commission to enforce total desegregation of all interstate terminals.
After a second victory, Nash moved on from fighting for desegregation to advocating for voting rights for blacks in the South. In 1962, Nash was sentenced to serve two years in prison for teaching lessons of nonviolent protest to children in Jackson, Mississippi, where she and her husband, James Bevel, were living. This time, Nash was four months pregnant. She was released on appeal and did not serve the full term.
For her work with the Voting Rights Committee of SNCC, President John F. Kennedy asked Nash to serve on the committee that led to the passing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. She also joined the staff of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and worked closely with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. as an organizer, strategist, field staff person, race relations staff person, and workshop instructor. In 1965, she and Bevel were awarded the Southern Christian Leadership Council's Rosa Parks Award for planning and carrying out the tumultous campaign for voter registration in Selma, Alabama.
Nash's lifework has been to empower young people to feel that they can bring awareness to any injustice they may be experiencing in their lives through nonviolent means. She has spoken at countless college and universities, youth organizations, and human rights conferences and currently resides in Chicago, where she has worked for several decades in tenant organizing, housing advocacy, and real estate.
In 2003, Nash received the Distinguished American Award presented by the John F. Kennedy Library Foundation. A year later, the LBJ Award for Leadership in Civil Rights was bestowed on Nash by the Lyndon Baines Johnson Library and Museum. One of her most recent honors was the bestowal of the National Civil Rights Museum's Freedom Award in 2008.
Mary Jo Fairchild
Halberstam, David. The Children. New York: Random House, 1998; Mullins, Lisa. Diane Nash: The Fire of the Civil Rights Movement. Miami, FL: Barnhardt & Ashe Publishing, 2007; Williams, Juan. Eyes on the Prize: Americas Civil Rights Years, 19541965. New York: Penguin, 1988; Wynne, Linda T. The Dawning of a New Day: The Nashville Sit-Ins, February 13May 10, 1960. Tennessee Historical Quarterly 50 (1991): 42–54.