Reflections on an Era return to index
After she moved from Chicago to Nashville to attend Fisk University, Diane Nash experienced segregation for the first time. She immediately became active in local workshops on nonviolent protest that led to the lunch counter sit-ins of 1960, which she helped orchestrate. Nash was a founder and a leader in a students' nonviolent activism organization, SNCC, and famously convinced Nashville mayor Ben West to admit that segregation was wrong. Despite violent opposition from segregationists, West's statement quickly led to the students' victory and the integration of public accommodations like lunch counters. Here Nash explains how she got involved with the protests and learned the tactics of nonviolent resistance.
by Diane Nash
I was really feeling stifled that fall. My goodness, I came to college to grow and expand, and here I am shut in. In Chicago, I had had access, at least, to public accommodations, lunch counters and what have you. So my response was, "Who's trying to change these things?" Paul LaPrad, a white Fisk student, told me about the nonviolent workshops that Jim Lawson was conducting. They were taking place a couple of blocks off campus.
Jim Lawson was a very interesting person. He had been to India and studied the movement of Mohandas Gandhi. He also had been a conscientious objector and had refused to fight in the Korean War. He conducted weekly workshops, where we would do things like pretend we were sitting in at lunch counters. We would practice things such as how to protect your head from a beating and how to protect each other. If one person was taking a severe beating, we would practice other people putting their bodies in between that person and the violence, so that the violence could be more distributed and hopefully no one would get seriously injured. We would practice not striking back if someone struck us.
The sit-ins were really highly charged, emotionally. In our non-violent workshops, we had decided to be respectful of the opposition, and try to keep issues geared towards desegregation, not get sidetracked. The first sit-in we had was really funny, because the waitresses were nervous. They must have dropped two thousand dollars' worth of dishes that day. It was almost a cartoon. One in particular, she was so nervous, she picked up dishes and she dropped one, and she'd pick up another one, and she'd drop it. It was really funny, and we were sitting there trying not to laugh, because we thought that laughing would be insulting and we didn't want to create that kind of atmosphere. At the same time we were scared to death.
After we had started sitting in, we were surprised and delighted to hear reports of other cities joining in the sit-ins. And I think we started feeling the power of the idea whose time had come. Before we did the things that we did, we had no inkling that the movement would become as widespread as it did. I can remember being in the dorm any number of times and hearing the newscasts, that Orangeburg had demonstrations, or Knoxville, or other towns. And we were really excited. We'd applaud, and say yea. When you are that age, you don't feel powerful. I remember realizing that with what we were doing, trying to abolish segregation, we were coming up against governors, judges, politicians, businessmen, and I remember thinking, I'm only twenty-two years old, what do I know, what am I doing? And I felt very vulnerable. So when we heard these newscasts, that other cities had demonstrations, it really helped. Because there were more of us. And it was very important.
The movement had a way of reaching inside you and bringing out things that even you didn't know were there. Such as courage. When it was time to go to jail, I was much too busy to be afraid.
Please share your thoughts and comments about this essay or any other part of the Eyes on the Prize Web site.
From Hampton, Henry, and Steve Fayer, Voices of Freedom: An Oral History of the Civil Rights Movement from the 1950s Through the 1980s (New York: Bantam Books, 1990), pp. 55, 57-58, 58-59.