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Diane Judith Nash (born May 15, 1938 in Chicago), a leader and Chairman of the 1960s Nashville Student Movement, was a founder of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and a major participant in the Southern Christian Leadership Conferences' Birmingham Movement and Selma Voting Rights Movement. In these capacities and others, Nash was a key force in the 1960s Civil Rights Movement.


Early life

Nash was raised on the southside of Chicago. She attended public and Catholic schools, and dreamed of one day becoming a nun. However, she went on to study English at Howard University in Washington, DC before transferring to Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee in 1959.

Nash felt degraded by the racial prejudice she experienced in Nashville, but did not know what she could do about it. She began attending non-violent civil disobedience workshops led by Rev. James Lawson. In 1960 at age 22, she became the leader of the Nashville sit-ins, which lasted from February to May 1960, and which led to the desegregation of the cities lunch counters.

After being arrested, Nash, with John Lewis, led the protesters in a policy of refusing to pay bail, on principle. Sentenced to pay a $50 fine for sitting at a whites-only lunch counter, Nash was chosen to represent her fellow activists when she told the judge, "We feel that if we pay these fines we would be contributing to and supporting the injustice and immoral practices that have been performed in the arrest and conviction of the defendants." When Nash provocatively asked the mayor on the steps of City Hall, "Do you feel it is wrong to discriminate against a person solely on the basis of their race or color?", the mayor admitted that he did. Within a few days, six lunch counters in Nashville were serving blacks.


In April 1960 Nash helped to found the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), and quit school to lead its direct action wing. In 1961, she took over responsibility and led the Freedom Rides from Birmingham, Alabama, to Jackson, Mississippi. The rides had been conceived by the Congress of Racial Equality, but after severe attacks, CORE's leader James L. Farmer, Jr. was hesitant to continue them. Nash talked with the students compromising the Nashville Student Movement and argued that, "We can’t let them stop us with violence. If we do, the movement is dead." John Lewis, who had just returned from participating in the Freedom Ride, agreed with her, as did the rest of the students, and they continued the action to a successful conclusion.

Nash also designed portions of the strategy used in the Selma, Alabama Voting Rights campaign, and was an important organizer in the 1963 Birmingham campaign. Originally fearful of jail, Nash was arrested dozens of times for her activities. She spent 30 days in a South Carolina jail after protesting segregation in Rock Hill in February 1961. In 1962, although she was four months pregnant with her daughter Sherri, she was sentenced to two years in prison for teaching nonviolent tactics to children in Jackson, Mississippi, where she and her husband, movement leader James Bevel, were living, but was released on appeal after serving a shorter term.

President, John F. Kennedy, appointed her to a national committee that led to the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. She worked for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference with Martin Luther King, Jr. and many others from 1961 to 1965, serving as an organizer, strategist, field staff person, race-relations staff person and workshop instructor. Nash later questioned the SCLC because of its dominance by males, especially clergymen.

In 1965, SCLC gave its highest award, the Rosa Parks Award, to Diane Nash and James Bevel for their leadership in the Alabama Project and the Selma Voting Rights Movement. In 2003, Nash received the "Distinguished American Award" from the John F. Kennedy Library and Foundation. In 2004, she received the LBJ Award for Leadership in Civil Rights from the Lyndon Baines Johnson Library and Museum. In October, 2008, Nash was awarded the National Freedom Award presented by the National Civil Rights Museum located in Memphis,Tennessee.

Family life

Nash and James Bevel had two children before their divorce, Sherri and Douglass. Returning to Chicago, Nash worked in fair housing advocacy and real estate, and as an educator and lecturer. She appears in the award-winning documentary film series Eyes on the Prize and is featured in David Halberstam's book The Children.


  • David Halberstam, The Children (New York: Random House, 1998). ISBN 0-965-058818
  • Lisa Mullins, Diane Nash: The Fire of the Civil Rights Movement (Barnhardt & Ashe Publishing, Inc., 2007). ISBN 978-0-9715402-8-6

External links



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