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'We trusted ourselves': Civil rights activist Diane Nash reflects on career during Creighton's MLK Week

Chris Whitt, PhD, Creighton's vice provost for Institutional Diversity and Inclusion, left, interviews Diane Nash, a leading figure of the civil rights movement.Having spent the bulk of her early adulthood in the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s, Diane Nash was at the nexus of many a watershed moment in American history.

She knew and worked with Martin Luther King Jr., she led Freedom Riders and co-founded the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). And while history and media have sometimes conspired to marbleize the movement in time and monuments, Nash, speaking in conversation with Chris Whitt, PhD, Creighton University’s vice provost for Institutional Diversity and Inclusion, Monday afternoon as part of the University’s Martin Luther King Jr. Week, says it was an undertaking of ordinary people thrust into extraordinary roles.

“People have a way of thinking that what we did in the 60s was magical,” she said. “It wasn’t. It was very practical. If you wanted to get the right to vote, you sat down, you wrote a strategy, you determined what to do first and what to do after that and after that and after that. And you went out and got your right to vote. When you organize people, you go door to door and organize people. We trusted ourselves to do that. It’s how the movement happened.”

At 80 years of age, Nash has spent more than three-quarters of her life in activism, starting with her collegiate days at Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee, where the Chicago native first encountered the specter of Jim Crow laws.

Denied access to public restrooms or to eat in most restaurants, Nash began organizing other students to stage protests over segregation in Nashville, especially at lunch counters in the city.

“When I got sent through back doors or couldn’t go to the library, I was outraged,” Nash said. “Those Southern, white racists made me angry. They made people’s lives humiliating. And Jim Crow wasn’t just sitting in the back of the bus or not getting to sit at the lunch counters. Black people’s everyday lives were miserable. It really was a hell.”

But armed with truth and convinced she was on the right side of history, Nash stood up to the mayor of Nashville on segregated facilities and wrested from him an admission, on the steps of city hall, that what was happening in his city was unjust and wrong. Lunch counters in the city were desegregated within a month.

“I didn’t worry about it,” Nash remembered. “He had no business being mayor if he was allowing his city to be segregated. He didn’t intimidate me because he was not doing his job.”

Nash’s work caught the eye of the era’s civil rights leaders, including King. She took up leadership roles with SNCC and voting rights movements. In 1961, she helped lead the Freedom Riders in an effort to desegregate buses and other facilities on highways in the American South.

The effort resulted in a conflict with U.S. Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy, who, through an assistant, John Seigenthaler, asked Nash to turn the Freedom Riders around. As with her confrontation with the leaders in Nashville, Nash was confident that her cause was just and right.

“Standing up to the Attorney General of the United States, I saw that it was his job to enforce the rules of safe conduct on the nation’s highways,” she said. “If he had done his job, we’d have had no reason to ride. But he hadn’t done his job, so we did it for him. It wasn’t just me. I was working with a group of people who made it easy to stand up to him.”

Nash was later invited by President John F. Kennedy to be part of a team that crafted legislation that later became the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Imparting lessons to young people today, Nash said it’s of seminal importance to know one’s own mind and to be armed with the facts and the knowledge that one’s cause is just.

“Use your own mind,” she said. “That’s what the Creator gave us all a mind for. Just make sure your cause is right, that what you do comes out of your internal system of integrity. Don’t go off half-baked. Do some study and, once you’re convinced, you move forward. Don’t count on government officials. You’re young, you’ve got a lifetime to live within this society. You’ll bring your own children into this world, and future generations will look to you to determine what kind of society they’ll inherit.

“People will try to convince you you’re powerless. It’s a hoax. In a democracy, people have the power and today, we have too many people thinking that that’s not the case. That’s how we lose a democracy. You’ve got as much power and responsibility as anyone else to see that the system is as it should be.”

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