‘Freedom Rider’ Diane Nash at Brenau Shares Historic Experience as a Civil Rights Activist

Aug 26, 2011
Rudi Kiefer

Originally published on 2/08/10

As the city of Atlanta debates whether to name a street for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) for its historic role in the civil rights movement in the 1960s, Brenau University prepared to play host to a woman who 50 years ago helped create the organization that put “feet on the street” in the nonviolent public demonstrations so critical to the movement’s success.

Civil rights activist Diane Nash, who coordinated and participated in the “Freedom Rides” at the apex of the turbulence in the civil rights movements in the early 1960s, will speak to Brenau students at Pearce Auditorium on the Gainesville campus at 7 p.m., Thursday, Feb. 18. The event is free and open to the public.

“This is a once-in-a-lifetime event, to be in the presence of a true hero,” said Brenau sophomore Jillian Ford, a conflict resolution and legal studies major who is coordinating Nash’s appearance at Brenau. Ford is president of the Silhouettes, a student organization that is bringing Nash to the Brenau campus as part of the Black History Month celebration. “This is an opportunity few in my generation will have, to meet someone who helped change the world.”

Nash, a native and current resident of Chicago, was a student at Fisk University in Nashville, Tenn., when she decided to do something about the extreme racial prejudice she was feeling in the southern city. She joined the fast-growing cadre of black and white college students committed, often at great personal peril, to conducting sit-ins at segregated lunch counters, bus boycotts, voter registration drives and other nonviolent protests in the fight for voter and racial equality. U.S. Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., was then a classmate at Fisk and one of her colleagues in the movement.

In 1960, following great success a year earlier in desegregating Nashville’s lunch counters and public eating establishments, she and Lewis were part of the core group that organized SNCC, pronounced “SNICK.” Nash left college to work full-time leading SNCC’s direct action wing. One of her first jobs was to take over the “Freedom Rides” program that had been abandoned by another civil rights organization because it had become violent. Although it was against federal law to impose racial segregation on interstate buses operated by Trailways and Greyhound, the law was not enforced when buses passed through southern cities. The earlier protesters encountered mob violence in which numerous people were injured. Nash enlisted white and black students from various SNCC branches to take up the rides. She herself rode one of the buses into Mississippi where she endured both mob violence and imprisonment.

Nash, who occasionally landed in jail because of her activities, continued her work throughout the South and was part of some of the most dramatic events, including the often-violent clashes in Birmingham, Ala., that culminated in the 1963 dynamite bombing of a black church that killed four children and the “Bloody Sunday” 1965 march on Selma, Ala., when horseback-mounted, club-wielding police attack marchers on the Edmund Pettus Bridge leading into the city.

The SNCC organization was so important to the success of the civil rights movement that the Atlanta City Council is considering changing the name of Raymond Street, where SNCC opened its first office after the national organization was established in October 1960, to SNCC Way to honor the organization and its members.

Among many awards and honors she has received for her civil rights and anti war work is her 2008 National Freedom Award presented by the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis, Tenn. Previous recipients cited for contributions to civil rights and human rights Nelson Mandela, President Jimmy Carter, Rosa Parks, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Oprah Winfrey, Thurgood Marshall, President Bill Clinton and Sidney Poitier.

“Ms. Diane Nash stood up for what is right and for her freedom,” said senior nursing student Julie Singleton. “Ms. Nash’s presence on the Brenau campus will be a great experience. Brenau women will have an opportunity to learn that there is a way to act and make a difference.”

After the 1960s, she held several administrative positions in social service agencies in Chicago and was a housing and real estate consultant. Currently, she lectures at colleges and universities and continues to be an activist in civil rights and peace issues. Ms. Nash has a daughter and a son who are adults, and she is a grandmother.

For questions regarding this event please contact Valerie Walston at vsimmons-walston@brenau.edu or Jill Ford jford@tiger.brenau.edu.