Local activist honors contributions of Diane Nash
CIVIL RIGHTS MOVEMENT
This month, President Joe Biden awarded Chicago native Diane Nash the Presidential Medal of Freedom — the nation’s highest civilian honor. Nash received the honor for her work organizing “some of the most important civil rights campaigns of the 20th century.”
According to a White House statement: “Nash worked closely with Martin Luther King Jr., who described her as the driving spirit in the nonviolent assault on segregation at lunch counters.”
Antoine Hubbard Sr., a Merced County activist and founder of S.O.U.L. (Straighten Out Unjust Law), remembers meeting and honoring Nash a few years ago at a local event.
Hubbard told the Times that he presented Certificates of Appreciation to the highly esteemed Nash on behalf of S.O.U.L, as well as Assemblyman Adam Gray, and Senator Anthony Cannella during a presentation at Modesto Junior College on Jan 13, 2014.
“Nash is one of the standout women leaders during the Civil Rights Movement, and a great role model for all,” Hubbard says.
This week, Hubbard provided the following history for Times readers:
Nash was born in Chicago on May 15, 1938, to Leon and Dorothy Bolton-Nash. She graduated in 1956 from Hyde Park High school and enrolled at Howard university in Washington, D.C. After a year, she transferred to Fisk University, majoring in English. In Nashville, Nash experienced for the first time the social wounds of racism, from segregation to muttered taunts on city streets. Her life quickly changed. She and other Fisk students began attending workshops in civil disobedience conducted by the Rev. James Lawson, the Methodist minister, missionary, and activist who had studied satyagraha, the philosophy of non-violent resistance preached and practiced by Mohandas K. Gandhi in his campaign to free India from British rule. Thus inspired, the students began applying Ghandian tactics, engaging in sit-ins at local lunch counters. They were successful: 0n May 10, 1960, Nashville became the first southern city to desegregate its lunch counters.
In 1961, Nash was helping to coordinate the legendary Freedom Rides, by filling buses with black and white activists while protesting the lack of enforcement of desegregation. Robert Kennedy Jr. is said to have asked his then assistant, John Seigenthaler, “Who in the hell is Diane Nash?”
Seigenthaler pleaded with Nash to discontinue the rides, saying to Nash, “You’re going to get somebody killed!” To which she replied, “You don’t understand we signed our wills last night.”
In the spring of 1962, Nash had earned her place as a leader in the male-dominated civil rights movement. She and other Nashville activists held a silent march to the steps of Nashville’s city hall, asking mayor Ben West, “Do you feel it is wrong to discriminate against a person solely on the basis of their race or color?” To the surprise of almost everyone on both sides of the movement, the mayor admitted that he did.
In the Freedom Riders documentary, the mayor stated that (she) asked me some pretty soul-searching questions and one that was addressed to me as a man. I tried as best I could to answer it frankly and honestly. I could not agree that it was morally right for someone to sell merchandise and refuse them service, and I had to answer it exactly that way.
Just weeks later, the city’s businesses desegregated their lunch counters.
In 1962, when she was four months pregnant, Nash was sentenced to two years in prison for teaching non-violent principles to children. After days of prayer, she decided not to appeal her sentence; knowing her child would be born in prison. Diane Nash stated, “I believe that if I go to jail now, it may hasten that day when my child and all children will be free — not only on the day of their birth but for all lives.”
The presiding judge was not willing to face the public relations nightmare that would result from this, and the outcome reduced her sentence to 10 days.
“I was scared the whole time,” she recounted. “But here’s the thing: You had to do what was required or you had to tolerate segregation. And whenever I obeyed a segregation law, I felt like I was agreeing that I was too inferior to do what the general population did. We presented southern white racists with a new set of options: Kill us or desegregate.”
Says Hubbard: “It is important to note the present times that our country currently faces, along with the Black Lives Matter Movement, which was originally started with three women: Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullers, Opal Tomet. While this movement has gained much awareness in recent years, it is important to not lose sight of the struggle that many endured during the time of the Civil Rights Movement, while still paving the way for themselves and others to be game changers for equality. Women do not always receive the accolades they deserve, for being the few of those who were game changers and leaders. It is an honor to see women with courage, using their voices, and to taking a stand in what they believe in. Women who created huge movements, dating back decades ago. Nash was one of the women who despite all odds, threats, and consequences put before her, that rose to the occasion of banning together with the greatest of men and women in America, to fight for their rights.”