Civil rights activist Diane Nash

Civil rights activist Diane Nash—one of the people featured in the powerful American Experience documentary “Freedom Riders”—reflects on the 50th anniversary of the original group of volunteers who risked their lives to fight segregation in the Deep South.

Diane Nash was one of the most respected student leaders of the '60s civil rights movement. As a Fisk University student in Nashville, she was determined to challenge Jim Crow laws and became a founding member of SNCC, was sentenced to prison for teaching nonviolent tactics to children and helped bring Dr. King to Montgomery, AL in support of the Freedom Riders. Nash was appointed by President Kennedy to the national committee promoting passage of the '64 Civil Rights Act and eventually returned to her native Chicago to work in education and fair housing advocacy.


Tavis: Pleased and honored to welcome Diane Nash to this program. In the earl 1960s she became a key figure in the civil rights movement as a student at Fisk University in Tennessee. In 1961, she joined a group of civil rights activists in an effort to desegregate bus stations in the South.

The Freedom Riders were viciously attacked during their journey in what became a seminal moment in the movement, and this month marks now the 50th anniversary of the Freedom Rides, and next Monday, here on PBS, you can catch the terrific “American Experience” film, “Freedom Riders.” Here now, a scene from “Freedom Riders.”


Tavis: So at that moment in history, who the heck was Diane Nash?

Diane Nash: (Laughs) Well, I was a student at Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee, and I had gotten extremely upset and outraged and angry, really, because Nashville was segregated and there were signs, and it was very dehumanizing.

So I became involved in the sit-in movement and in 1961 the Freedom Rides had begun. We in Nashville, in the Nashville movement, absolutely shared the objectives that the Congress of Racial Equality had in doing that project, and we had said that we’ll stand by in case they need help. So when the riders were viciously attacked in Birmingham and Anniston we in Nashville understood that the ride must not stop right then, because if it had the message would have been sent that you could stop a nonviolent project by inflicting massive violence.

And if that message had been sent, we wouldn’t have been able to have a movement about voting rights, public accommodations or anything else without getting a lot of people killed. So it was critical that it continue right then.

Tavis: I’m glad I have the full show with you because there’s so much to talk about tonight. You mentioned that the Freedom Rides did, in fact, start back in 1961.

Nash: Yes.

Tavis: Let me fast-forward and come back, because I want to make a point here that you will appreciate, I think, or at least can expound on for me. So the March on Washington, as we know, happens in 1963.

Nash: Yes.

Tavis: Those who watch this program know, we’ve talked about it so many times, in ’63, because patriarchy was so alive and well even in the civil rights movement, as you well know, not a single woman could get up and speak at the March on Washington in ’63. Dorothy Height’s on the stage, but she doesn’t speak. Mahalia Jackson sings, but she doesn’t speak. No women speaking at the March on Washington in ’63.

Back up now to ’61, when these Freedom Rides happened. You are a 21, 22-year-old student –

Nash: Twenty-two.

Tavis: Twenty-two-year-old student at Fisk, and you happen to be a woman. Where does the courage and the conviction and the commitment and the character come from for a woman in this movement to be as bold, as out front as you were at such a young age?

Nash: Well, many, many, many women participated in the movement. It was just that the civil rights movement came before the women’s movement, and so just about everybody’s consciousness was very low when it came to gender.

Actually, in the Nashville, the local movement to desegregate lunch counters in Nashville, I was the third chairperson. The first two were men, and they held office – I guess each one held office for maybe 10 days or two weeks, and they missed meetings and they missed demonstrations, and when they came back to a meeting we said, “Where were you,” and they said they were busy studying or something. (Laughter)

We thanked them for their service, but said that we couldn’t afford to have officers who were not efficient, because someone could get killed or injured, and we replaced them.

So I will not be modest at this point – when I was elected, we had worked together for a few weeks and I think my colleagues thought I was efficient.

Tavis: When you say “elected,” was that your choice or was it by chance? Again, we go back to Dr. King. King didn’t choose to be the leader of the movement; he was thrust into that, as we know, in Montgomery. So was Diane Nash thrust into this, or did you choose this?

Nash: Thrust, definitely. I tried repeatedly to decline when I was nominated. I was afraid, and in fact the night I was elected even past my attempts to avoid it, I remember coming back into my room in the dormitory. My roommate wasn’t in and the room was dark, and I really didn’t have the strength to walk across the room to my side of the room.

So I remember leaning against the wall and thinking, “What have I gotten into?” We’re coming up against Southern white men who are in their fifties and forties and who are businessman and government officials, and who are we? A bunch of students, 18, 19, early 20s. I remember not being able to imagine what things would be like in two months or three months.

Tavis: Let’s go back to Chicago and then we’ll come back to Nashville. Back to Chicago, because you were born in Chicago. If I am to believe what I read, and I’ll let you tell me whether what I read is correct, you were born to a middle class family that wasn’t the most radical, and yet you end up being one of the leaders of this movement.

So take me back to Chicago and tell me about the family that you were raised in. I’m trying to make this connection, this juxtaposition between how you got out in front of the movement, given where you started, in a middle class, bourgeois Black family, if I’m to believe what I read.

Nash: Well, I smiled when you say it’s – because we really weren’t political in terms of civil rights at all. I remember when I got in the sit-ins my grandmother wrote me a letter and she said, “Diane, you’ve gotten in with the wrong bunch.” (Laughter) She didn’t know I was the chairman. (Laughter)

But they were very conscious of citizenship and politics in terms of being Americans, but not in terms of civil rights.

When I got to Nashville my sense of dignity was attacked. I came from a very loving, caring family, and when I complied with segregation and used a back door or something I felt like I was agreeing that somehow I was not good enough to use the front door and the facilities that the ordinary public used.

And I think at that time Blacks as a whole had really had it with segregation. It was demeaning. If you went downtown in Nashville during the lunch hour, Blacks were sitting along the curb and along the alley eating lunch that they had either brought from home or had purchased at a restaurant on a take-out basis. You could buy it to go, but you couldn’t sit there and eat it. I just found segregation insulting and demeaning.

Tavis: When you saw what happened to that first group of Freedom Riders, that first 13 – we saw the photos a moment ago of their bus being bombed, firebombed, as it were.

Nash: Yes.

Tavis: You were on the stand-by, you were at the ready, as you said earlier, with a second group, and you feel the movement has got to move forward because you don’t want these cowards to win. But tell me about the fear, the trepidation that you must have felt, seeing clearly what had happened to the first group.

Nash: Well, anyone with average intelligence would understand that if you took up the Freedom Ride after what had happened to the first group, chances of getting seriously injured or killed were great. We were about to get on the bus and one of the students in Nashville said, “Someone ought to stay out,” for a number of reasons, so that what we were doing would be accurately interpreted to the press, in order to keep the Freedom Ride going and recruit more people, in order to relate to the federal government and to relate these several communities by then who had become involved.

They elected me to do that, to be coordinator. In that capacity as coordinator, several of the students gave me sealed envelopes that I was to mail in the event of their death. So people understand precisely what they were getting into, but they were willing to make that sacrifice in order to – for the collective good.

Tavis: What was the import, the impact, of white students joining these Freedom Rides, and not just African Americans?

Nash: Well, after the riders were jailed in Jackson, we put out a call across the country for people to come and join the Freedom Ride. Again, we still felt it was important to keep it going. People of all races came, and so I think it was important.

Tavis: When those students in your group boarded those buses, the second wave, what was the goal? Was the goal to – I don’t want to put words in your mouth. What was –

Nash: To desegregate interstate bus travel.

Tavis: Period, period.

Nash: Trailways and Greyhound. That was the goal.

Tavis: There was nothing short of that? That’s what I was really trying to get at, that was – if that hadn’t happened, you would have felt that you had achieved the goal?

Nash: If that hadn’t happened we’d still be working on it. (Laughter) We were determined, and that’s one of the tenets of nonviolent, direct action – you don’t stop. You keep on until you have prevailed, and you don’t start unless you know that what you’re doing is just and correct.

Tavis: How did you make a decision to move this cause in front of the cause of your education at that moment?

Nash: The movement needed someone to work full-time, and I remember I had found my vocation when I started doing that. I had been planning to become a high school English teacher, and after I got in the movement it was as though I could hardly sit through one more Chaucer class.

You have to be a whole, dignified, self-respecting person in order to be an English teacher or whatever kind of job your education would prepare you for, and I just knew that segregation was wrong, and I knew that I should not be going along with it. That I should resist it.

I have managed, over the years – I’ve always had a good relationship with myself, and –

Tavis: That’s important.

Nash: It is, it really is. (Laughter) Part of that is making decisions that would cause me to respect the person I see in the mirror.

Tavis: Did your parents, your grandmother, who had written you that letter, did they come over time to respect the choice that Diane had made for her own life?

Nash: I spent a lot of time writing letters to them explaining what I was doing. I don’t think my grandmother would ever be convinced, but my family was convinced that I was convinced, and actually, they came around. My mother ended up going to fundraisers in Chicago that were raising money to send to the students in the South and actually, over years, she went to an elevated train bus station one day at 6:00 a.m. to hand out leaflets protesting the war. (Laughs)

Tavis: So she was encouraged and empowered by her own daughter.

Nash: Yes.

Tavis: Yeah, that’s powerful.

Nash: That’s true.

Tavis: That’s powerful. Since we talked about Chicago a few times already, had you experienced any kind of race animus in Chicago that would have prepared you for what you were about to encounter at Fisk in the South in Tennessee, or was it a night and day experience for you that you weren’t really prepared for?

Nash: I had experienced some racism in Chicago, but I hadn’t quite known what to do with it. I hadn’t quite understood it. When I was in elementary school, three of the nuns – I went to a Catholic school – had said this – they were sisters of the Blessed Sacrament, and that was a teaching order, and they only worked with Negroes and Indians.

I remember the nuns saying, “You know we must love God, because we work with the least of God’s children – Negroes and Indians.” I remembered that. I didn’t fully understand it at the time.

Tavis: I don’t know if there’s anything here, but since you raised it I want to just ask, just because I’m curious. It may be a crazy question. You grew up in a Catholic family, as you mentioned, in Chicago.

Nash: Well, they weren’t really Catholic. We lived across the street from the Catholic school, and the Catholic school did not allow any fighting, and we lived across the alley from a public school and there were fights every day. So that’s how I got –

Tavis: Into that school.

Nash: Once I got to the Catholic school then I became a Catholic.

Tavis: All right, so you didn’t grow up Catholic but you became Catholic when you went to this school.

Nash: A very devout Catholic.

Tavis: Very devout, okay. So my question still works – I thought you were about to crash and burn my question before I got it out when you jumped in and changed courses on me.

What I really wanted to ask was when we – and I don’t want to be myopic about this – but when we tend to think of the movement and King and all the folk around him, we tend to think of Black folk in the South in Baptist churches, in charismatic churches. We don’t tend to think of Catholics in the movement – you know where I’m going with this.

Was that ever an issue for you? Did you fit right in with all these bible-toting Baptists down South? How was that for a Catholic girl in the movement with all these Black Baptists, et cetera?

Nash: I fit in. There were a lot of songs that I didn’t know and some of the culture was different for me, and they used to tease me. (Laughter) They’d say things like – well Reverend (unintelligible) likes to tease me and say, “Yeah, Diane would get excited about the sermon and she’d shout, too, but she’d say, ‘Hail Mary.'” (Laughter) So they had a lot of jokes.

Tavis: Yeah. It occurred to me, checking out this “Freedom Riders,” which is a wonderful piece; “American Experience” has done a great job, on PBS.

Nash: Yes, that is a wonderful film.

Tavis: You’re pleased with it? Yeah, you’re pleased with it, yeah.

Nash: I’m more than pleased with it, and it’s accurate, which is something that can’t be said for many of the pieces that have been written about the movement.

Tavis: Just to value PBS.

Nash: This one is really good.

Tavis: (Unintelligible) PBS, we try to be accurate around here, yeah.

Nash: Well, you did it.

Tavis: When I got a chance to watch this I was struck by the fact that – and I’ve known this, but when you see it on film it’s in your face. You all were young kids, basically, young adults then who didn’t wait on elected officials. You weren’t waiting on the body politic, you weren’t waiting on government, you weren’t waiting on Washington. You took matters into your own hands.

I’m saying this not to cast aspersion on this generation today, but so many of them got excited around the candidacy of Barack Obama, from your hometown of Chicago, and there’s nothing wrong with that. I’m just trying to get you to say a few words to me, if you will, about the difference between putting your hopes, dreams and aspirations on an individual vis-à-vis government versus taking your own grievances, your own frustrations, into your own hands and taking control of your future that way.

Nash: That’s a really important point. Put your hopes and dreams on an individual that’s you, because who will look out for your interests more than you will? Voting is important, but voting is not enough. That 10 minutes that you spend in the voting booth every two years does not fulfill the requirement for being a responsible citizen.

I personally wish that American citizens would stop depending on elected officials to do the things that need to be done in this country. Can you imagine how long it would have taken if we had waited for elected officials to desegregate public accommodations or to desegregate interstate bus travel? It still may not have happened, and I think that’s true today.

Back then, we didn’t know – I didn’t know, put it that way – if nonviolent direct action would work or not, but now we’ve seen it. It’s hard to argue with success, and remarkable changes have been made. I think people would do well to study how to have a nonviolent movement and to take the future of this country into their own hands and use direct action to make changes.

Tavis: I’ve got less than a minute to go, and I’m glad you went there because I wanted to close on this very point, so thanks for the beautiful segue.

Nash: Okay.

Tavis: I wonder whether or not you think that nonviolent direct action will still work. Dr. King’s philosophy has been under attack since he died, that that worked then, but there’s no way in the world, in a world of Hamas, in a world of al Qaeda, in a world of Bin Laden, nonviolent direct action would not work today. You’ve heard that before, I assume?

Nash: Oh, I’ve heard it before. I think that Mohandas Gandhi, his invention of a way to declare warfare and make social change without killing and maiming human beings is one of the most important inventions of the 20th century. I think that many of the tactics that we use now cause more trouble and more enemies and more violence – violence begets violence.

If you bomb somebody and you kill their relatives and their friends, you’ve made an enemy, and I think that – and you haven’t solved any problems. I really wish governments would look at this as a viable alternative to the killing and maiming that they do.

Tavis: Well, maybe those in government will check out PBS next week when this wonderful piece premieres. It’s called “Freedom Riders.” Just a powerful, powerful piece, and Diane Nash, of course, is featured in it, and we are honored to have you on this program.

Let me just close by saying, as empty as it might seem, because I can’t think of anything more to say, thank you.

Nash: Thank you, Tavis.

Tavis: I don’t mean for the conversation, either.

Nash: Okay.

Tavis: I mean for your life and for your legacy. And the conversation was nice on top of that. I appreciate it.

Nash: I enjoyed it.

Tavis: I’m glad to have you here – honored to have you.

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Last modified: February 11, 2013 at 2:20 pm