May 15, 1938
Civil rights activist Diane Bevel Nash was born in Chicago. She was raised in a middle-class Roman Catholic household and attended Howard University in Washington, D.C. In 1959 she transferred to Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee, majoring in English. In Nashville she was confronted by rigid racial segregation for the first time in her life, and later that year she joined with other students from local colleges to organize protests against racism and segregation. She also began to attend nonviolence workshops led by James Lawson, a student of Mahatma Gandhi's theories of nonviolent resistance. Skeptical at first, Nash found the concept of moral resistance highly compatible with her strong religious beliefs and came to embrace nonviolence as a way of life.
Nash was elected chairperson of the Student Central Committee and was one of the key participants in sit-ins in local department stores in Nashville that began in February 1960. Nash's picture was printed in the local newspaper and she was often quoted as the spokesperson for the emerging student movement. She gained more celebrity when she confronted Nashville's mayor, Ben West, during a protest demonstration and forced him to admit that he felt local lunch counters should be desegregated.
In April 1960 Nash was one of the founding members of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) in Raleigh, North Carolina. In February 1961 she and a group of ten other students were arrested in Rock Hill, South Carolina, for civil rights activities and refused the opportunity for bail. Their actions dramatized racial injustice, popularized the plight of African Americans in the South, and set a precedent of "jail, no bail" that was followed by many other activists during the civil rights movement.
In May 1961 SNCC activists recommenced Freedom Rides, after the violent southern white response to the initial Freedom Rides led the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) to discontinue them. Leaving Fisk to devote herself full-time to the movement, Nash played a pivotal role as coordinator of the SNCC Freedom Rides, serving as liaison with governmental officials and the press. Later that year she was appointed head of direct action in SNCC, married James Bevel, a fellow civil rights activist, and moved to Jackson, Mississippi, where she continued her commitment to social activism. (She adopted her husband's last name as her middle name.) In August 1962 Nash and Bevel moved to Georgia and both became involved in the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC).
The couple proved to be a highly effective organizing team and played an integral role in organizing many SCLC campaigns including the 1964–1965 Selma voting rights campaign. In 1965 they were awarded the Rosa Parks Award from SCLC for their commitment to achieving social justice through nonviolent direct action.
Diane Nash's prominent role in the student sit-in movement made her one of the few well-known female activists of the civil rights movement. She has maintained an unwavering commitment to black empowerment and over the years has broadened the scope of her activism to include antiwar protest and issues of economic injustice. Now divorced, Nash has remained politically active in the 1980s and 1990s, living and teaching in Chicago, doing tenant organizing and advocating housing reform. In 2004 she and other sit-in leaders were invited back to Nashville for the dedication of the Civil Rights Room at the new Nashville Public Library.
Branch, Taylor. Parting the Waters: America in the King Years, 1954–63. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1988.
Clayborne, Carson. In Struggle: SNCC and the Black Awakening of the 1960s. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1981.
Powledge, Fred. Free At Last?: The Civil Rights Movement and the People Who Made It. Boston: Little, Brown, 1991.
lydia mcneill (1996)
robyn spencer (1996)
Updated by publisher 2005