I squeezed through the crowd to reach my seat in Battell Chapel’s reserved section. The hall roared with an impatient energy, every attendant craning their neck to catch a glimpse of Diane Nash, the legendary civil rights activist. Ms. Nash’s 2017 Martin Luther King Jr. Keynote Address was not simply a talk, but a magnificent event. N’Kosi Oates, the graduate assistant to the Afro-American Cultural Center, opened the proceedings with a speech of power and perseverance. Shades performed a breathtaking rendition of “We Shall Overcome,” earning a standing ovation. Dean Jonathan Holloway contributed a few words before Ms. Nash assumed the microphone. Immediately, the crowd fell silent. I was present on behalf of WKND for a group interview with Ms. Nash, yet still found myself recording every word of her address, every lesson she imparted us. As it turned out, that interview never occurred. Instead, she fielded questions from a lucky few among the hundreds in the audience.
Diane Nash is a human rights icon who was integral to some of the most fruitful campaigns during the Civil Rights Movement era. Her activist résumé is incredible: integrating lunch counters in Nashville, journeying with the Freedom Riders, co-founding the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and getting initiatives like the Selma Voting Rights Movement off the ground. We in the audience nodded when she reminded us of nonviolence’s effectiveness. We smiled when she recounted her double date with Martin and Coretta. We sat in awe of her knowledge, her wisdom, her humor and the ease in which she communicated it all to us.
Q: How did you overcome your fear of being a potential target for violence?
A: I used to find myself concentrated on this fear, to the extent that I was not able to do my job correctly. So I told myself that if I did not find a way to overcome this fear, I would cancel the demonstrations and resign. I thought that people in the movement had a right to leadership that was effective. Different people had different coping mechanisms.
Q: What can we learn from the Civil Rights Movement of the twentieth century that can be applied to our present moment?
A: I think that the demonstrations that took place after the inauguration were wonderful. Recently, we have seen protests. But, you have to really bring about a situation where it is easier for your opponent to grant your objective than it would be not to. For instance, in Montgomery, the community brought the situation to a point where the bus company had to go out of business or desegregate. No one is going to look at you and say, “Oh, they’re marching in the streets. I’m going to change this.” That is the case especially when money and power are involved. I don’t think there was a more significant invention of the twentieth century than protest. I would like to add something else. Most of my remarks were geared towards people who do not possess power. Others may be from families and cultures whose associates have more than their share of power. I hope that young people in that situation have a backbone, have integrity, think for themselves, and do what is right.
Q: What would you suggest to those who are passionate about Black Lives Matter to keep on progressing that particular movement?
A: I think that Black Lives Matter is certainly addressing a critical issue. Though it primarily focuses on black boys and men—being shot in the back by people who are supposed to protect them is horrendous. We should not allow that to happen in a civilized country. I think the problem is that most of what Black Lives Matter has been doing is demonstrating. And although I appreciate that, and admire that, that is not going to achieve social change. You have to incorporate all of the steps in activism in order to bring about change. Like I said, the powers at be will not be moved simply because of protesting in the street.
Q: How did you deal with misogyny coming from inside the Civil Rights Movement?
A: In Nashville, I never had a problem. I was the third chairperson of the student leadership group there. By the time I had been elected, I had been working with everyone for a while. They elected me because I was efficient. I was scared to be the chairperson, leading a group that would be confronting older, racist, powerful people. But my colleagues insisted, until I was convinced. Later on, in the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, there was a huge problem of good old boys getting together, and I was the only female in the group that was setting up SNCC originally. I let those guys put so much pressure on me that I started having dizzy spells. Later on, in the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, black ministers dominated it. There was a great deal of misogyny there. But I have to say, since the Civil Rights Movement came before the Women’s Movement, everybody’s consciousness was low, including mine. For example, in the SCLC Selma office, it was understood that the department heads would all be men. They appointed a man as my office manager. It was years later before I thought about that again and thought, you know, they didn’t have any skills [laughs]. But during that period of time, it was expected that leadership would be male.
Q: I’m sure you have experienced failure or loss. How did you carry on?
A: I think having been trained with Gandhi’s brand of nonviolence made our group so closely knit. If some one individual was being beaten severely, we could come to his or her aid without being violent. We would put our bodies between them and the cause of the harm. To be part of a group where I would sacrifice my body and then have every confidence that someone else would sacrifice their body for me was a remarkable experience. We were determined to not let each other down. We understood and admired each other. We understood the courage and the commitment that was required. Music was another thing. We would sing together, and that would steel us to keep going. The ultimate thing, though, was that we knew that if we did not continue going, we would have to allow ourselves to be segregated. That was just not acceptable. Black people had really had it. Before we started, we considered what it was going to take to eliminate segregation. Keep in mind that this was a system that lynched people, that was incredibly inhumane. We decided that we would do whatever it took. If the path to desegregation went through the jailhouse, then we would do that. If it meant standing up to violence and getting beaten, we would do that. If it meant getting killed, some of us were going to get killed. We did not underestimate segregation’s power and viciousness, and we deliberately gave each other courage.