On May 14, 1961, an angry mob attacked the Freedom Riders—a group of civil rights activists who’d spent the past ten days traversing the American South in protest of segregation on buses—as they pulled into a station in Anniston, Alabama. Wielding pipes, baseball bats, bricks and other weapons, the crowd slashed the bus’ tires and tossed a firebomb through a broken window. The Freedom Riders narrowly escaped the burning bus, only to find themselves under assault by the waiting horde. Unable to find another bus willing to transport the protesters, organizers abandoned the campaign.
Days later, a separate set of activists from Nashville, Tennessee, slipped their last wills and testaments into envelopes and prepared to restart the Freedom Rides. When Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy learned of their plans, he called his assistant, John Seigenthaler, and implored him to dissuade the ten students from continuing their potentially deadly campaign. The first words out of Kennedy’s mouth: “Who the hell is Diane Nash?”
A co-founder of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and leader of the 1960 Nashville sit-ins, 23-year-old Nash was the one guiding the new Freedom Riders on their journey to Birmingham, Alabama. Despite Seigenthaler’s efforts to convince her otherwise, Nash and her colleagues decided to move forward with the protest. When Birmingham civil rights leader Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth asked Nash whether she realized Freedom Riders had almost been killed in the city, she reportedly replied, “Yes. That’s exactly why the ride must not be stopped. If they stop us with violence, the movement is dead. We’re coming. We just want to know if you can meet us.”
Following the Freedom Rides, Nash, now 84, organized a series of campaigns against segregation and discrimination, guided by the prevailing philosophy of nonviolence. She spearheaded the 1965 Selma to Montgomery March, walking alongside Martin Luther King Jr. in support of Black voting rights, and later turned her attention to housing rights and the anti-war movement. Now, the White House has enshrined Nash’s name in history by awarding her the nation’s highest civilian honor, the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
“Throughout her life, she’s never said it’s about me,” Christopher Wilson, director of experience design at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History (NMAH), tells Smithsonian magazine. “She’s always said it was about us. And we are the ones who accomplish this. There’s no better example of … ‘We the People’ than her and the people that she worked with.”
Working closely with such activists as John Lewis, Ella Baker and James Lawson, Nash was among the most outspoken, effective advocates of the civil rights movement. She referred to her activism as direct action instead of protest, viewing it as the result of many years of strategizing rather than as a reaction to major events. No single superhuman guided the movement, she believed: It was an individual’s responsibility to ask what they could do to help, not wait for a leader to come along and do it for them.
“If we had left it to elected officials to desegregate, I wonder how long we would have had to wait, and I think truly that we might still be waiting,” said Nash at the 2011 National Youth Summit. “[So] the students took it upon themselves without anybody’s permission.”
Though she projected an air of confidence, Nash admitted in a 2020 interview with NMAH that she was “afraid the whole time.” One wrong move could lead to her or others’ deaths; additionally, as a woman in a male-dominated movement, she knew that her missteps could undermine women’s overall authority within civil rights organizations.
Ahead of the 1963 March on Washington, the planning committee nominated Nash to speak at the gathering. Ultimately, however, no women were allowed to address the crowd as official speakers.
“This exclusion of women from the podium reflected the male domination in the leadership of the major civil rights organizations and the position of women in the nation as a whole in 1963, but it did not accurately represent how central women had been to the social and political gains the movement had produced to that point,” wrote Wilson in a 2013 NMAH blog post.
Still, Nash refused to back down. For her, there was no choice between doing what was necessary to end segregation and allowing the practice to continue.
“She once said to me, ‘I’m just not going to accept segregation,’” Wilson recalls. “And that was a moment where she realized, ‘I can no longer be segregated. No one has this power over me anymore if you don’t allow yourself to be oppressed in that way.’”
Born in Chicago in 1938, Nash spent a year at Howard University in Washington, D.C. before transferring to Fisk University in Nashville. When four Black men in neighboring North Carolina staged the so-called Greensboro sit-in in February 1960, Nash realized sit-ins’ potential to combat segregated lunch counters. Thanks in part to her leadership, activists held sit-ins in 55 cities across 13 states before the end of March 1960.
“What she generally proposed and worked on were movements that … couldn’t be ignored,” says Wilson, “where you are using your body as a nonviolent instrument, and putting it in places where gears and wheels of society can’t turn.”
As the sit-in campaign grew, the movement found its resolve. When the home of Nashville civil rights attorney Z. Alexander Looby was bombed on April 19, 1960, “impatience turned to extemporaneous action,” wrote Wilson for Smithsonian in 2016. People filed behind each other on the city’s streets, uniting for the first big march of the movement. As the marchers approached the steps of City Hall, Nashville’s mayor, Ben West, stepped out to greet them.
With television cameras rolling, Nash asked, “Mayor West, do you feel that [it’s] wrong to discriminate against a person solely on the basis of his race or color?” Struck by Nash’s passion, West admitted that he believed segregation was morally wrong. Nashville began desegregating its public facilities three weeks later, a full four years before Congress passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
Part of Nash’s success stemmed from her refusal to compromise her principles. When Attorney General Kennedy offered SNCC thousands of dollars to switch its focus from direct action to voter registration, she adamantly refused, fearing that accepting government money could open a path for politicians to take over the movement by implying the students owed them a debt of gratitude, writes Fred Powledge in Free at Last? The Civil Rights Movement and the People Who Made It.
Following the example set by activists in Rock Hill, South Carolina, Nash and other SNCC members also refused to pay bail, pushing officials to arrest them with “Jail No Bail” tactics. “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,” Nash declared.
Like other campaigners for the movement, Nash was jailed multiple times. Speaking with the Guardian’s Jamiles Lartey in 2017, she recalled facing the prospect of a two-year sentence for encouraging the delinquency of minors by training them in the art of nonviolent protest. Five months pregnant at the time of her trial, she refused a Mississippi judge’s order to sit in the back of his court and was separately sentenced to ten days in jail for contempt of court. “That was to try to intimidate you,” Nash told the Guardian. “But it had the opposite effect, I learned I could exist with virtually nothing.”
Because authorities had Nash’s phone lines tapped, they knew she’d been alerting civil rights activists (among them singer Harry Belafonte) to her plight. Luckily for Nash, the judge ended up dropping her two-year sentence, likely to avoid attracting criticism for jailing a pregnant woman.
Upon her release, Nash wrote the judge a letter sharing her address in case he wanted to take her back to jail, according to History.com’s Thaddeus Morgan. She was dedicated to the cause, willing to cause a scandal if needed. Her work with the Freedom Riders was the same. For the sake of the movement, she argued, each activist had to push forward.
“It was clear to me that if we allowed the Freedom Ride to stop at that point, just after so much violence had been inflicted, the message would have been sent that all you have to do to stop a nonviolent campaign is inflict massive violence,” said Nash in the 2010 documentary Freedom Riders.
The 1963 bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church, a popular meeting place for civil rights leaders in Birmingham, proved to be another key turning point in Nash’s activist career. The Ku Klux Klan attack killed four young Black girls, spurring Nash and her husband, fellow activist James Bevel, to begin laying the groundwork for the 1965 Selma march. Realizing how much the couple’s work paved the way for the passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, King honored them with the Southern Christian Leadership Conference’s (SCLC) Rosa Parks Freedom Award.
In the decades since, Nash has continued her work, fighting for fair housing and peace movements. Though she’s been featured in documentaries like Eyes on the Prize and Selma, she’s hesitant about portraying herself as a solitary leader of the civil rights cause. The movement was only possible because of the work of thousands of citizens doing their part, she told Smithsonian in 2020.
“In a democracy, the citizens are rulers of the country. And today, I don’t think that most Americans feel like we are rulers, and therefore, we don’t act like it,” said Nash at the 2011 summit. “We should begin doing that. If you are not going to take responsibility, you as an individual, … then who is?”