Diane Judith Nash was a leader in the civil rights movement. Though not a Mississippian, Nash was integral to the movement in the state, from the Freedom Rides of 1961 to later work on voter registration drives and citizenship schools.
Born into a middle-class Chicago family on 15 May 1938, Nash grew up a devout Catholic and considered devoting her life to the church. She studied English at Howard University before transferring to Nashville’s Fisk University in 1959. Appalled by segregation in the city, she began to study nonviolence with James Lawson, a theology student at Vanderbilt University, as well as at the Highlander Folk School with activists such as Rosa Parks and Septima Clark. Students from Nashville sought to challenge segregation in department stores with whites-only eating facilities. Two days after a sit-in by North Carolina A&T State students in Greensboro on 1 February 1960, the already-trained Nashville students began a massive effort to desegregate the city’s lunch counters, with Nash devoting herself to recruiting other students for direct action while frequently participating in the sit-ins. An eloquent public speaker, Nash became the unofficial spokesperson for the Nashville group.
Nash played an important role in the April 1960 founding of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and advocated the group’s independence from existing civil rights organizations such as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). At SNCC’s inception, Nash served as the unofficial leader of the direct action branch.
Nash’s first work in Mississippi occurred in 1961, when she received word that the Congress of Racial Equality planned to halt the Freedom Rides after violent attacks on activists in Birmingham. Nash wanted to show that the movement would not be halted by violence and recruited other veterans of the Nashville sit-in movement to continue the planned ride through Mississippi to New Orleans. Two days after Nash and other Freedom Riders were arrested and transported by the police to the state line, they returned to Birmingham and resumed the ride, this time reaching Jackson before being arrested. They spent thirty-nine days imprisoned at Parchman Prison Farm, a time that unified them and strengthened their dedication to the movement.
Following her imprisonment, Nash and James Bevel, whom she married in 1962, opened the SNCC office in Jackson. They sought to implement a plan they termed “Move on Mississippi,” in which all segregated institutions would face challenges from SNCC. In the fall of 1961 Nash and other SNCC members worked to empower local high school and college students to take direct action, founding the first “freedom house” on Rose Street in Jackson. The Jackson nonviolent movement began many projects, such as picketing the segregated Mississippi State Fair, challenging segregated waiting rooms in bus stations, and in the spring and summer of 1962, organizing a boycott of the city bus system, which remained unconstitutionally segregated. For her involvement in encouraging high school students to buy bus tickets and then sit in white waiting rooms, Nash was arrested for contributing to the delinquency of minors. In April 1962, facing the prospect of two years in jail, she decided not to appeal: “This will be a black child born in Mississippi and thus wherever he is born he will be in prison. I believe that if I go to jail now it may help hasten the day when my child and all children will be free.” Ultimately, she spent ten days in jail.
The SCLC hired Nash and Bevel in 1961. She remained a member of the organization’s staff until 1965, working with the student wing of the movement and applying her experience in the Nashville movement and with SNCC. She helped to organize the 1963 March on Washington, and she and Bevel served as the key architects of the movement’s Selma voting rights campaign. She later questioned SCLC’s male-dominated leadership structure, recalling, “I never considered Dr. King my leader. I always considered myself at his side and I considered him at my side. I was going to do what the spirit told me to do. So If I had a leader, that was my leader.” In addition, Nash distanced herself from SNCC with the organization’s turn from nonviolent direct action to Black Power in 1965 under the leadership of Stokely Carmichael. With her lifelong dedication to nonviolence, Nash also became active in the anti–Vietnam War movement.
Nash has received numerous honors, among them the SCLC Rosa Parks Award, the Distinguished American Award from the John F. Kennedy Library, and the Lyndon B. Johnson Award for Leadership in Civil Rights.
Nash and Bevel divorced after having two children. She lives in Chicago and remains politically active. Tessa Thompson portrayed her in the movie Selma (2014). In March 2015, on the fiftieth anniversary of the March on Selma, she reflected, “It took many thousands of people to make the changes that we made,” she says, “people whose names we’ll never know. They’ll never get credit for the sacrifices they’ve made, but I remember them.”
- Raymond Arsenault, Freedom Riders: 1961 and the Struggle for Racial Justice (2006)
- “Diane Nash, Civil Rights Movement Leader, Reflects on Selma” (5 March 2015), ABC7 website, abc7chicago.com
- John Dittmer, Local People: The Struggle for Civil Rights in Mississippi (1994)
- Howard Dukes, South Bend Tribune (16 January 2005)
- David Halberstam, The Children (1999)
- Aldon Morris, The Origins of the Civil Rights Movement: Black Communities Organizing for Change (1984)
- Charles M. Payne, I’ve Got the Light of Freedom: The Organizing Tradition and the Mississippi Freedom Struggle (1995)