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Each week on the Junior Curators blog, we travel back in time to a different place in Tennessee history. Stories may be about a famous person, place or event from Tennessee’s past. They will include things like priceless artifacts, pictures, videos, and even some games. Be sure to better understand the story by answering the questions at the end of each post.
After learning the story, be sure to share what you've learned with your parents, family, or friends. Try making your own exhibit about it, shooting a movie, or writing a story about it. Let your creativity run wild!
By Philip Staffelli
Welcome back Junior Curators! February is Black History Month! So, in this blog we are going to learn about someone important to Black History, Tennessee History, and United States History. Today we are going to explore the life of Civil Rights activist, Diane Nash.
Diane Judith Nash was born in 1938, in Chicago, Illinois. She was raised a Catholic and attended public and Catholic schools. Nash even considered becoming a nun. After graduating high school, she first attended Howard University in Washington, D.C., but transferred to Fisk University in Nashville in 1959. It was in Tennessee that Diane Nash first experienced the segregated South. She saw signs that said “white, white-only, colored.” Many public places like the library, parks, and swimming pools were segregated. When she remembered that time, Nash said “I was at a period where I was interested in expanding, going new places, seeing new things, meeting new people. So that felt very confined and uncomfortable.” In the South, one of the things unavailable to Nash and other African-Americans was the ability to sit at lunch-counters. This meant that Black customers would have to order their food and eat outside of the restaurant.
Nash did not like segregation. She began to search for ways to fight against it. After meeting Reverend James Lawson, she soon found a way. Lawson studied nonviolent protest movements from the past, including those led by Gandhi in India. He also taught nonviolence workshops. It was from those workshops that Nash would learn tactics that would define the rest of her life.
In February of 1960, she was appointed to lead the Nashville Student Movement in negotiations to desegregate lunch counters. She also helped organize a boycott of downtown stores by Black Nashvillians. Her and others began to organize sit-ins within restaurants. This was a form of protest where a large group would get together and show up at a restaurant at the same time. They would then walk in, sit down, and ask to order food. The other customers would often yell, throw things at them, and do other things that weren’t nice. The protesters were trained to never fight back, thanks to the teachings of Reverend Lawson. Usually, the police were called by the business owners. Who do you think they arrested? They arrested the Black customers. Because of segregation, it was illegal for them to be there.
Diane Nash at a Lunch Counter in Nashville, Tennessee, SNCC Digital Gateway
When these protests and boycotts did not get the desired results, Diane Nash decided to organize a huge march, another form of protest, in Nashville to City Hall. Once at City Hall, they demanded to see the Mayor. When he finally appeared, they asked him if he thought it was right for businesses to not allow African-Americans in. The Mayor then admitted publicly that he agreed with segregation. Eventually, Nash along with other protests was successful. Later in 1960, Nashville became the first southern city to desegregate lunch counters.
Diane Nash did not stop with Nashville. She became one of the founding members of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee or SNCC in 1961. This group was important throughout the Civil Rights Movement. She was also on the front lines as a Freedom Rider. Violence soon stopped the first Freedom Ride in Alabama, but Nash insisted that they keep going. They did not let violence ruin their cause. The Ride continued into Birmingham, Alabama. Nash would later lead the Freedom Riders from Birmingham to Jackson.
Diane Nash on the cover of Jet, Tennessee State Museum Collection
In 1961, Nash left college to become a full-time activist for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). She continued to work with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. It was in this new role that she played a large part in the 1964 voter registration campaign in Selma, Alabama. This campaign and the violence around it led to the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Nash was also appointed to a national committee by President John F. Kennedy, which promoted the passage of the Civil Rights Act in 1964.
Civil Rights Activist – A person who fights for equal rights.
Segregated – 1) To keep separate. In this example, to separate people based on the color of their skin. 2) To set apart or divide groups of people. In this example, segregating people based on the color of their skin.
Negotiations – To discuss/debate something. To reach an agreement.
Gandhi – A leader in India during the 1930s and 1940s that led peaceful protests, which resulted in India gaining their independence.
Desegregate – To end segregation.
Where did Diane Nash go to college?
What were two ways that Diane Nash used to fight against segregation?
If you were going to protest something you thought was unfair, what method from the reading would you use? Why that one?
What are some other Civil Rights activists that you would like to know more about?
Watch this video from the Library of Congress with Diane Nash talking about Nashville. The video shows actual footage of the march on the Mayor’s office.
Philip Staffelli is an Educator at the Tennessee State Museum
Tennessee State Social Studies Standards
5.24 Analyze the key people and events of the Civil Rights Movement, including:
Martin Luther King Jr. and non-violent protests
Montgomery Bus Boycott and Rosa Parks
Brown v. Board of Education and Thurgood Marshall
Freedom Riders and Diane Nash
5.50 Identify Tennessee’s significant contributions to the Civil Rights Movement, including:
Highlander Folk School
Tent City Movement of Fayette County
The Clinton Twelve
“Diane Nash.” Biography.com. https://www.biography.com/activist/diane-nash. Accessed January 20, 2022.
“Diane Nash,” SNCC Digital. https://snccdigital.org/people/diane-nash-bevel/. accessed January 20, 2022.
Morgan, Thad. “How Freedom Rider Diane Nash Risked Her Life to Desegregate the South.” History.com. https://www.history.com/news/diane-nash-freedom-rider-civil-rights-movement. accessed January 20, 2022.
Tennessee State Museum. “Educational Program: Civil Rights Script.” Program provided by Tennessee State Museum. Nashville, TN. January 2022.
Williams, Juan. Eyes on the prize: America's civil rights years, 1954-1965. New York: Penguin Books, 1988.