Diane Nash Biography

Civil Rights Activist (1938–)
African-American civil rights leader Diane Nash was prominently involved in some of the most consequential campaigns of the movement, including the Freedom Rides and the Selma Voting Rights Campaign.

Who Is Diane Nash?

Diane Judith Nash (born May 15, 1938) is an acclaimed American civil rights activist. She was prominently involved with integrating lunch counters through sit-ins, the Freedom Riders, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), the Selma Right-to-vote movement and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference. She was also a part of a committee that promoted the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Nash later became active in the peace movement and continues to advocate for fair housing in her hometown of Chicago, where she practices real estate.

Diane Nash Photo

Harry Belafonte, Freedom Rider Diane Nash and Freedom Rider Charles Jones discussing the Freedom Riders movement, July 14, 1961.

Nash and the SNCC

After first enrolling at Washington D.C.’s Howard University, a historically black college (HBCU), Nash transferred to Nashville's Fisk University in 1959 and was taken aback by the extreme racial segregation she saw in Tennessee. As a result, she began participating in the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and practicing nonviolent protests. In 1960, she was designated as the student sit-in movement’s chairperson in Nashville, Tennessee. 

On February 6, 1961, she participated in a sit-in at a lunch counter in Rock Hill, South Carolina, with Ruby Doris Smith, Charles Sherrod, and Charles Jones. They were arrested, with the men sentenced to hard labor. This followed a lunch counter sit-in that occurred a week prior by a group that came to be known as the “Friendship Nine.” After being arrested, both groups engaged in “Jail-No-Bail” tactics, arguing that paying bail would validate their arrests and indicate acceptance of an immoral and corrupt system. The Friendship Nine’s convictions were overturned in 2015, 54 years later.

Freedom Rider

Nash was on the front lines in the Freedom Rides to fight for the desegregation of public transportation in the South. In 1961, Nash coordinated the Nashville Student Movement Ride from Birmingham, Alabama, to Jackson, Mississippi after learning of the bus burning in the Alabama city of Anniston and the riot in Birmingham.

"It was clear to me that if we allowed the Freedom Ride to stop at that point, just after so much violence had been inflicted, the message would have been sent that all you have to do to stop a nonviolent campaign is inflict massive violence," said Nash in the 2010 documentary Freedom Riders.

Throughout the Ride, Nash recruited new Riders, alerted the press of their efforts, and forged relationships with the federal government and national Movement leaders, including Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. She eventually left college to become a full-time activist for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) in 1961.

Voting Rights Activist, Selma

After moving to Jackson, Mississippi, in 1961, Nash headed SCLC campaigns for voter registration and school desegregation. Although her work was applauded by fellow civil rights activists, she endured numerous arrests for the cause. In fact, she spent time in jail while she was pregnant with her first child; her crime was teaching nonviolent tactics to children.

Nash played a major role in the Selma Voting Rights Campaign that eventually led to the Voting Rights Act of 1965. She was also appointed to a national committee by President John F. Kennedy that promoted passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Early Life & Education

Born on May 15, 1938, in Chicago, Illinois, Nash grew up in a middle-class Catholic family. Her father, Leon Nash, held a clerical job in the military during World War II, and her mother, Dorothy Bolton Nash, worked as a keypunch operator. After divorcing Leon, Dorothy married John Baker, a waiter on the railroad dining cars owned by the Pullman Company. 

Nash, who attended public and Catholic schools, considered becoming a nun while growing up. She also won several beauty contests as a teenager. In 1956, Nash graduated from Hyde Park High School in Chicago.

Husband & Family

Nash married fellow activist James Bevel in 1961. The couple had two children, Sherri and Douglass. Nash and her husband received SCLC’s Rosa Parks award from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in 1965 for their contributions to civil rights. The couple divorced in 1968.

Awards

Nash was named a recipient of the Distinguished American Award from the John F. Kennedy Library and Foundation in 2003 and the LBJ Award of Leadership in Civil Rights from the Lyndon Baines Johnson Library and Museum the following year. Additionally, she has been awarded an honorary doctorates from Fisk University and the University of Notre Dame.

Nash lives and works in her hometown of Chicago. She continues to peacefully advocate for fair housing, women’s rights and social justice.

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