May 15, 1938 –
Raised in Chicago, Illinois
“Bright, focused, utterly fearless…as a leader, her instincts had been flawless, and she was the kind of person who pushed those around her to be at their best, or be gone from the movement.” – David Halberstam
Diane Nash emerged from Nashville, Tennessee’s sit-in movement and from that starting point would go on to become one of the most esteemed student leaders and sit-in organizers of the time. Born to a middle-class Catholic family in Chicago, Nash didn’t understand what segregation was until she enrolled in Fisk University. “When I got to Nashville, and why I so keenly resented segregation, and not being allowed to do basic kinds of things like eating at restaurants…I felt…shut in very unfairly.” She immediately began attending nonviolence workshops being conducted by Reverend James Lawson. Taught Gandhian principles by Rev. Lawson, she became an unwavering believer in nonviolence as a way of life.
Nash was one of the founding members of SNCC. Few were more militant than she. On February 6, 1961, Nash and fellow SNCC leaders Ruby Doris Smith, Charles Sherrod, and Charles Jones sat-in in Rock Hill, South Carolina to support the “Rock Hill Nine,” nine students jailed after a lunch counter sit-in. Like the nine, all four refused bail. “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 also served as the coordinator of the Nashville Student Movement Freedom Ride and later led all the rides from Birmingham to Jackson in 1961. In 1962, although four months pregnant, Nash was imprisoned for teaching nonviolent tactics to children in Jackson. She told the judge she would serve the entirety of her two-year sentence but was later released on appeal. She was jailed for 10 days for refusing to move from the white side of the courtroom. A fieldworker, strategist, and organizer, Nash went on to help organize the 1963 Birmingham desegregation campaign and worked alongside Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the SCLC, especially for the Selma Voting Rights Campaign.
Lynne Olson, Freedom’s Daughters: The Unsung Heroines of the Civil Rights Movement from 1830 to 1970
David Halberstam, “Negro Girl a Force in Campaign; Encouraged Bus to Keep Rolling,” New York Times, May 23, 1961