Marc MorialOp-EdOpinion

MORIAL: Civil Rights Icon Diane Nash Celebrates Her 80th Birthday

“She would not be moved. I felt my voice go up another decibel and another decibel and soon I was shouting. ‘Young woman, do you understand what you’re doing? You’re going to get somebody killed!’ And there’s a pause, and she said, ‘Sir, you should know, we all signed our last wills and testaments last night before we left. We know someone will be killed. But we cannot let violence overcome nonviolence.’ Here I am, an official of the United States government, representing the president and the attorney general, talking to a student at Fisk University, and she, in a very quiet but strong way, gave me a lecture.” — former Assistant to the Attorney General John Seigenthaler on trying to talk Diane Nash out of the Freedom Rides in 1961

Happy birthday to Diane Nash.

Women have always been the spirit of the civil rights movement, at every point in our history, but many never seem to garner the acclaim they deserve. Diane Nash, who turned 80 this week, has been a leader among leaders.

Unlike many African Americans of her generation, Nash as a child in Chicago was seldom confronted with the depth and breadth of segregation’s brutality. She has said her family rarely spoke about racism when she was young, and her first real encounter with serious prejudice was her rejection from a modeling school that did not accept Black students.

“I had never traveled to the south at that time,” she told an interviewer for the PBS documentary “Eyes on the Prize.” “And I didn’t have an emotional relationship to segregation.”

Her arrival at Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee, as a transfer student from Howard changed all that.

“When I actually went South and saw signs that said ‘White’ and ‘colored’ and I actually could not drink out of that water fountain or go to that ladies’ room, I had a real emotional reaction to that,” she said.

It would have been easy for Nash to retreat back to Chicago, back to her comfortable middle-class life and loving family. But she chose to confront injustice head-on.

She quickly discovered James Lawson, who was then the southern director for the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) and was conducting nonviolence workshops in a church basement.

In 1960, at age 22, she led the Nashville sit-ins, aimed at desegregating lunch counters. A few months later, she helped coordinate the Freedom Rides, riding interstate buses into the south to challenge the southern states’ failure to enforce a desegregation ruling by the Supreme Court.

She would be jailed dozens of times over the years — once while pregnant and facing the possibility of giving birth in prison. She and then-husband James Bevel initiated the Selma to Montgomery Marches, credited with spurring passage of the Voting Rights Act.

She and Bevel soon turned their efforts toward protesting the war in Vietnam. She had her passport revoked after traveling to Moscow, Peking and Hanoi, where she participated in an interview with North Vietnamese President Ho Chi Minh.

Though she often is described as the only woman within Martin Luther King’s inner circle, she told a local television interviewer in 2016 she never considered King her leader.

“I always considered myself at his side and I considered him at my side,” she said. “I was going to do what the spirit told me to do. So If I had a leader, that was my leader.”

Morial is president of the National Urban League.

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