MAKERS Profile

Diane Nash

Civil Rights Leader

In this video

Diane Nash on first encountering the Jim Crow South, desegregating lunch counters, and courageous leadership.
Diane Nash, a Chicago native, first became actively involved with the Civil Rights Movement in 1959, when she enrolled in Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee, and came face to face with the pervasive segregation of the Jim Crow South for the first time in her life.  Her unyielding determination and courageousness, coupled with her “flawless instincts,” quickly made her one of the most respected leaders of the sit-in movement in Nashville. Nash's early efforts included orchestrating the first successful civil rights campaign to de-segregate lunch counters, as well as helping to found the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, a group that became one of the most influential during the Civil Rights Movement.    Nash is widely recognized for her leadership in the Freedom Rides, a campaign to desegregate interstate travel. She worked tirelessly to recruit new Freedom Riders, and gain the support of national Movement leaders and the federal government. Nash played a key role in bringing Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. to Montgomery, Alabama on May 21, 1961, in support of the Freedom Riders. Nash later played a major role in the Birmingham de-segregation campaign of 1963, and the Selma Voting Rights Campaign of 1965.    In 1965, Dr. Martin Luther King awarded Nash and her husband, James Bevel, SCLC's Rosa Parks Award for their work. Nash remained active throughout the Civil Rights Movement, and later in the Vietnam peace movement. In 1965, Nash returned to Chicago to work in education, real estate and fair housing advocacy. She began lecturing across the country on women’s rights in the early 70s and today remains a prominent voice for human rights.

More From Diane

A Pregnant Defendant
Nash talks about being pregnant and facing jail time in Mississippi for her work organizing the Freedom Rides.

Civil Rights & Women's Rights
Nash talks about the Civil Rights Movement's connection to the women's movement and how The Feminine Mystique affected her.

At MLK's Side
Nash rejected the assumption, made by some in the Civil Rights Movement, that only men could lead.

Personality-Based Leadership
Nash argues that leadership built around a charismatic personality is detrimental, especially to a liberation movement.

Managing Fear
As chairperson of the Nashville sit-in group, Nash was a special target of potential violence. She had to conquer her fear to lead.

Changing Racist Minds
Insisting on designated speakers was crucial to the careful strategy of the Nashville sit-ins to desegregate lunch counters. 

A Reluctant Leader
It was with tremendous reluctance and fear that Nash finally accepted the leadership post in the Nashville sit-in group.

Beauty Pageant Years
A heroic Civil Rights leader, Nash was more consumed with beauty pageants than social justice as a teen.

Blind to Racism
Nash explains how growing up in a home where racism wasn't discussed, she was blind to its signs for many years.

Grandma's Dignity
Nash's early lessons in self-worth from her grandmother, primed her to confront discrimination in later years.

Husband & Wife Team
Nash describes the way she and her husband, fellow Civil Rights leader, James Bevel, complemented each others as organizers.