Diane Nash, Civil Rights Leader
Diane Nash on first encountering the Jim Crow South, de-segregating lunch counters, and courageous leadership.
Civil Rights Leader
Diane Nash on first encountering the Jim Crow South, desegregating lunch counters, and courageous leadership.
DIANE NASH: A lot of people say, oh, you're so brave and think I wasn't afraid, and that is not true. I was really, really, afraid.
I grew up on the south side of Chicago. I went to Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee. That was the first time that I personally had encountered signs that said white and colored on water fountains and restrooms. It was possible for blacks to buy food in a restaurant on a carry-out basis, but you couldn't sit in the restaurant and eat it. I found that humiliating.
I did not want to be chairperson. I was afraid to be chairperson, and I remember thinking, we are facing white racist businessmen and politicians, and who are we? A group of students, 18, 19, 20 years old.
Our first sit-in was February 13. We targeted six lunch counters. People often have the impression that a group of black students would say, hey, let's have a sit-in, but there was a great deal of work and planning that went into it.
One of the things that we anticipated was that white people, segregationists, would say they didn't want to sit next to dirty, smelly Negroes in restaurants. So we developed a dress code. The young men wore suits and ties, and the women wore dresses. I got confidence in my ability to work effectively in the movement.
We had prepared for that in the workshops. Everybody who went had pledged to be nonviolent. When they announced that we were under arrest, everyone got up and walked willingly to the patrol wagon. And when the police turned around, a whole new set of demonstrators had taken seats at the lunch counter.
That very day, we organized a march to City Hall. Several thousand people marched. It was a silent march. We met the mayor.
I asked the mayor, Mayor West, do you feel that it's wrong to discriminate against a person solely on the basis of his race or color?
BEN WEST: I could not agree that it was morally right for someone to refuse them service, and I had to answer it just exactly that way.
DIANE NASH: That was a turning point. The following day, "The Nashville Tennessean" ran a headline and it said, "Integrate Counters-- Mayor."
The movement had a way of reaching inside you and bringing out things that even you didn't know were there. You didn't have to be a man to be courageous.
DIANE NASH: Civil Rights Movement gave birth, I think, to a number of different groups who started applying the principles that we were talking about, you know, freedom and equality. I think some of the women who were in the civil rights movement started applying the principles to themselves as women. And I can remember reading the book "The Feminine Mystique" and putting it down for a few minutes, or throwing it in the air a couple of times, and saying, yes. You know, that's really true. And I hadn't realized it before. After that I got involved with the women's movement. And I think the main thing that it did was to make me begin thinking of myself as a substantial human being.
DIANE NASH: I was the third chairperson of the sit-in group which came to be known as the Nashville Student Central Committee. The first two chairpersons were men. Each of them were in office, maybe, 10 days or two weeks.
And they missed meetings, they missed demonstrations, and when they came back to a meeting, we said, where were you? And they said that they had been studying. And we thanked them for their service and replaced them.
And I did not want to be chairperson. I was afraid to be chairperson. I declined repeatedly, and they wouldn't let me. I even said that I had an serious illness that prevented me from taking it.
They still wouldn't let me off the hook. They said, well, all right, when you're incapacitated, we'll take over for you. And it was daunting.
A lot of people say, oh, you're so brave, and think I wasn't afraid. And that is not true. I was really, really afraid.
DIANE NASH: My grandmother believed that most of the problem was that older generations influenced children and young people to become racist. Her solution was to hardly ever mention it. Hardly ever mention race at all.
I remember in my first job, I was the only black. It was an insurance company, and about five of us would take our breaks together.
But one day, all the others got up and went on-- on the break. And I was like, hey, wait for me. And that must have happened a couple of times.
Then one of them, her name was Rosemary, said, Diane, I'll go on the break with you. Those girls are crazy or nuts or something to that effect.
And that was the first-- I don't know if she came out and told me it was because of race, but that's when I really got the first hint that that's what it was. Apparently I must have said something that let them know that I was black.
So I had a lot of confusion-- you can probably tell in the way I'm speaking now that I have a lot of confusion about race as a result of not really having discussed it at home. I worked it out though. I've gotten rid of a lot of confusion.
DIANE NASH: Charismatic leadership, as we've known it, has not freed black people, and it never will. Because instead of being a vehicle to liberation, it really is a symptom of social illness. For an adult to think that he or she needs a leader or somebody to tell them what to do, and all they have to do is do it, is a serious problem.
My thought about leadership is more task-oriented. Somebody needs to keep up with the money and account for it. Somebody needs to come into meetings with an agenda and to call on people. I think the kind of leadership that has to do with the ego and being ordained "the leader" and staying a leader for years and years is deficient. I think movements should be issue-led, not personality-led.
DIANE NASH: My job as chairperson was to go from one store to the next, where there were sit-ins. And as I walked from one sit-in to another, there were these-- there were maybe five or six young white guys with the leather jackets who were exactly the kind who would attack us. One of them said to his friend, "That's Diane Nash. She's the one to get."
And I became just overcome with fear. And so for the next few minutes, I realized that my mind was on my own fear instead of on what I was doing, preventing me from being effective. So I decided to give myself a time limit.
And I said at the end of that time period-- I'm talking to myself now. At the end of that time period, I will either have gotten myself together enough so that I can do my job well. Or I'm going to go back to the church, which was our headquarters and resign.
And so at the end of that time, I was able to get it together. And I was able to function.
DIANE NASH: I was expecting my first child to be born in jail, actually. Because I had been giving nonviolent workshops to some young people in Mississippi, preparing them to go on the Freedom Ride to desegregate interstate bus travel, I was charged with contributing to the delinquency of minors. It carried a two-and-a-half year jail term. I decided to serve the sentence, which meant that my child would be born in jail rather than leave Mississippi, which I think is what the authorities were really trying to do, get my husband and me out of Mississippi because we had become quite effective at encouraging black people to try to register to vote.
When I surrendered to the sheriff, and later to the judge, I sat on the front seat of the courtroom, and the bailiff ordered me to go to the back. And I thought, I'm going to serve two-and-a-half years. I'm not going anywhere. So I stayed at the front seat. So I was charged with contempt of court.
And before I had gone to surrender, I had called all the NAACP chapters, all the core chapters, everybody, SNCC, and SCLC. While having the phone tapped, the authorities realized that I was expecting a baby. So I think they just decided it was likely to be more trouble than they had banked on.
I served 10 days, and the judge never pursued the longer sentence.
DIANE NASH: I had watched "Miss America" pageants on television. It was the culture at that time. Beauty was the most important attribute that a woman could have. And during a phase of my life, I guess, high school and right afterwards, I thought beauty pageants were really what was important and where it was at. I really was into them.
And so I entered several. Actually, I've found that in life, it's a good thing to do the things that you want to do at a given point in time. It kind of gets them out of your system. It resolves things.
DIANE NASH: James Bevlin and I got married. We were committed to the movement very seriously. Jim had been a member of the Central Committee in Nashville, and we developed a brother/sister relationship before a romantic one. And the combination was powerful, I guess is a good word for it.
Many of Jim's strong points were not my strong points, and many of my strong points were not his. For instance, he was just very effective verbally. He could move a crowd of people. He was a minister, and so he was really good verbally. I'm not (CHUCKLING) in that way.
My approach is really different. He was not a person who would do a lot of detail. So I was. That was a strong point of mine. I would research and come up with the demographics and, you know, how many people were not registered to vote and that kind of thing. So putting those skills together made us an extremely effective team.
DIANE NASH: In Nashville, I was elected chairperson, because people thought I was effective. And I did not have any trouble, in terms of being a woman. Later, when I was working with many men, who were ministers, for instance, there was a gender difference. People felt that men should be leaders, and I never felt that way.
I never felt that way, even in working with Martin Luther King. I never saw him as my leader. I saw myself as being at his side. I saw him as being at my side. You didn't have to be a man to be courageous.
DIANE NASH: My grandmother was my primary caregiver until I was seven because my mom worked full time.
And my grandmother was a remarkable woman. She had very little formal education. She could just write her name.
However she imparted to me that I was important.
When she was combing my hair or washing my face when I was a little kid, she would say things like, don't ever let anyone mistreat you. That-- that made a lot of sense to me.
Actually I think later on when I was forced to go to back doors and was segregated and what have you, that sense of, I don't think I will allow myself to be relegated to this kind of treatment.
I'm Carrie Bolton's granddaughter. I don't think so.
DIANE NASH: A lot of planning went into the sit-ins and the movement. For instance, we thought that some people might ask sincere questions while we were sitting in. We wanted to be able to answer their questions because we didn't want to simply make changes and exert power over people. We wanted to change people's minds and to persuade them not to be racist. So we wanted sincere questions answered, but we knew that if conversations were struck up that voices would be raised, and arguments might ensue, and that's not what we wanted to convey.
So we developed spokespersons for each lunch counter. So if a person asked one of the people who were sitting in a question, that person would say, the lady in the pink blouse is our spokesperson. Ask her that question or the man in the blue shirt. And so that solved that problem.