Facing Death: Diane Nash and the Freedom Rides
Born on May 15, 1938 and raised in Chicago, Illinois Diane Nash experienced a middle-class upbringing away from the stress and trauma of Jim Crow. She had her baptism in southern segregation when she attended Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee. She resented Jim Crow Laws and felt that by obeying them she was agreeing that because she was Black she was too inferior to use the front door, or sit at lunch counters, or receive equal treatment. This feeling of forced compliance to a system she hated drove Nash to seek out Civil Rights Organizations while in college. She eventually discovered the nonviolence workshops hosted by Rev. James Lawson close to her campus. These workshops made her an unwavering believer in nonviolence. She became a member of the Nashville Student Movement and began negotiating with restaurant owners to desegregate the lunch counters in the spring of 1960. Along with other members of the Student Movement, Nash successfully organized a boycott of lunch counters by Black patrons that drove business owners to sit down and talk with the students. The White shop owners admitted their fear of loosing white customers. Because Nash believed in treating her racial opponents as humans, they recruited middle aged, “respectable” White women to sit at the desegregated lunch counters for a few weeks which successfully kept White customers from rioting. She was also one of the charter members of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) in the spring of 1960 along with founder Ella Jo Baker.
On May 4, 1961 two buses full of members of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), both Black and White activists, left Washington DC bound for New Orleans. In a bold, dangerous, protest of interstate bus segregation this integrated group that would eventually come to be known as the Freedom Riders, embarked on a journey into the deep south. On May 14, 1961, as one of the greyhounds pulled into the Anniston, Alabama bus station it was met by a mob of 200 people armed with iron bars, blackjacks, and tire chains. The bus driver continued driving, trying to out run the mob, but was forced to stop once the bus tires went flat. The mob took this as an opportunity to attack, breaking windows and throwing a firebomb inside the bus, forcing all the passengers out and into the mob where they were beaten. The second grey hound bus did stop at the station in Anniston were they were met by a mob of about 30, and also beaten.
After this vicious attack it was impossible for the freedom riders to find a bus driver that would agree to risk their lives to finish the last leg of the journey to Mississippi and the Freedom Riders disbanded.
Under the direction of Diane Nash and SNCC a new group of Freedom Riders were formed. This group, consisting of 8 Black and 2 White activist, both male and female boldly prepared to complete the freedom rides against all odds. Nash directed the members to sign their wills, say goodbye to their loved ones, and prepare themselves for the possibility of not returning. “The students have decided that we can’t let violence overcome, we are coming into Birmingham to continue the Freedom Ride.”
US Marshalls and attorney general Robert F. Kennedy were staunchly against the activist completing the journey because it was dangerous and they knew they could not protect them. A US Marshall personally called Diane Nash after they got wind she was the person organizing the group, to try and stop them. Nash made it clear she, and the rest of the group were prepared to die for this cause. In the face of extreme danger, Nash led the group to complete the Freedom Rides which pushed for the enforcement of interstate bus desegregation, and inspired similar rides across the country.
After the freedom rides Diane Nash continued to fight and play a crucial role in Civil Rights and Activism helping with the Selma Alabama voting rights campaign. To this day, at the age of 81 years old, she is still committed to non-violence and activism.