Photo: George Burns/Harpo Studios
By 1961, Diane Nash had emerged as one of the most respected student leaders of the sit-in movement in Nashville, Tennessee. Raised in a middle-class Catholic family in Chicago, Diane attended Howard University before transferring to Nashville's Fisk University in the fall of 1959. Shocked by the extent of segregation she encountered in Tennessee, she was a founding member of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee in April 1960. In February 1961, she served jail time in solidarity with the "Rock Hill Nine"—nine students imprisoned after a lunch counter sit-in.
When the students learned of the bus burning in Anniston, Alabama, and the riot in Birmingham, Alabama, Diane argued that it was their duty to continue.
"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," Diane says in Freedom Riders. Elected coordinator of the Nashville Student Movement Ride, Diane monitored the progress of the Ride from Nashville, Tennessee, recruiting new Riders, speaking to the press and working to gain the support of national movement leaders and the federal government.
Assistant to Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy John Seigenthaler recalls a phone conversation with Diane when he tried to dissuade the Nashville Freedom Riders from going to Alabama, warning of the violence ahead. Diane replied that the Riders had signed their last wills and testaments prior to departure.
In his interview for Freedom Riders, Seigenthaler recalls, "She, in a very quiet but strong way, gave me a lecture." Diane played a key role in bringing the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. to Montgomery on May 21 in support of the Riders. She herself was present for the violent siege of First Baptist Church.
Later that same year, she married Freedom Rider James Bevel. In 1962, she was sentenced to two years in prison for teaching nonviolent tactics to children in Jackson, Mississippi, although she was four months pregnant. She was later released on appeal. Nash played a major role in the Birmingham desegregation campaign of 1963 and the Selma voting-rights campaign of 1965, before returning to her native Chicago to work in education, real estate and fair-housing advocacy. She received an honorary degree from Fisk University in 2009.