From the segregated lunch counters of 1950s Nashville, to hushed buses threading the hostile highways of the Deep South, to the sweaty meeting halls and phone rooms that wove the civil rights movement together, Diane Nash has a message for those who hope for a better world today.
Nash, the honored speaker at the 33rd Martin Luther King Jr., Holiday Commission Luncheon, is a brilliant organizer from way back. While still a student at Fisk University in 1959, she led the breakthrough sit-in movement that desegregated lunch counters in Nashville. In 1961, she coordinated the Freedom Ride from Birmingham, Alabama, to Jackson, Mississippi.
As a movement leader, she roused people in the morning to join her and face a day of unknowns, including possible beatings and arrests. She knows how to deliver a wake-up call.
“In a democracy, people are rulers of the country, but United States citizens don’t see themselves as rulers of this country,” she said in a phone interview last week. “That is the biggest problem. There are what, 300 million of us now. That is a lot of brain power and human power.”
Leaving progress to politicians, Nash said, has never worked.
“Suppose we had left desegregating restaurants, buses and public accommodations and getting the right to vote in the South to elected officials,” she said. “I think, 50 years later, they still wouldn’t have done it. Citizens need to look at the lessons of the sixties. The methods we used were effective. They worked.”
Convicted of “contributing to the delinquency of a minor” for organizing nonviolent student protests, she turned herself in, rather than accept bail, and insisted she serve jail time, even though she was pregnant with her first child.
She served 30 days, dodging cockroaches at night (and something larger that she heard crawling on the floor, although she never found out what it was).
President John F. Kennedy named her to the national committee that promoted passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
Later, she was a vehement opponent of the Vietnam War. She defends the principle of nonviolence espoused by King, not with sentiment, but with mathematical logic.
“With all the violence that’s been perpetrated in the last century — violence of all kinds — if it made a better society, we’d all be living in Utopia,” Nash said. “In my observation, violence doesn’t create a better society, it creates more violence, more harm to human beings and just makes things worse.”
To Nash, 79, the “jail-no-bail” principle was central to the success of civil rights battles in the South. As a new cohort of protesters calmly replaced each group that was hauled away, the prospect of arresting hundreds of people peacefully sitting at lunch counters threatened not only to overwhelm Tennessee jails. The spectacle roused the collective conscience of the state, the segregated South and the nation.
Younger generations are equipped with far-reaching tools such as social media Nash admits are “unknown” to her.
“We had to crank those mimeograph machines, in order to turn out leaflets,” she said with a laugh. “I haven’t thought about applying social media to the 1960s.”
But the nuts and bolts of organizing for change, Nash said, still aren’t visible on screens.
“Young people are doing what they saw on television — namely, marching,” she said.
“But that’s only about 20 percent of what we did, I’d say, in the South. They didn’t see on television the door-to-door organizing and the many, many meetings we had, to educate people about their responsibility in becoming a voter and learning to act in unison. We did have a great deal of discipline in the civil rights movement, which is absolutely required any time you’re dealing with a large group of people.”
When I asked her to single out today’s most pressing civil rights issues, she gave a surprising answer.
“One of the most important battles, that I think is important, isn’t really being fought very hard,” she said. “That is reversing the Citizens’ United Supreme Court decision that allows people to purchase politicians.
Because if you don’t have equal power in everyone’s vote, you really don’t have democracy.”
But Nash already sees one sign of hope in the unprecedented wave of women filing for local, state and national office in 2017. She is gratified that the Women’s March — Nash’s “20 percent” part of the job — is translating into real change.
She also feels that the current wave of indignation over sexual harassment in the workplace is long overdue.
“I think it’s wonderful,” she said “I think women have a right to be in the workplace and devote their attention to their job instead of having to deal with harassment and all the unpleasantness that women have had to put up with.”
Nash’s own remarkable experience shows that when people take matters into their own hands, peacefully, there is no limit to what they can do. If the system seems rigged now, take a ride on a time machine and try sitting at a lunch counter in Nashville in 1958.
“People spend a lot of time talking about the Trump administration, what they’re doing and not doing, and I think, to a large extent, that’s wasted time,” Nash said.
“We’ve had a chance to see who these people are. They’re going to act the way they’re acting. The issue is, what are the citizens going to do? People could be working on the economic system, education, health care, the criminal justice in their town, their state, rather than spending so much angst over what politicians are doing. No matter how much you talk about them and worry about them, they are who they are.”
Martin Luther King, Jr., Holiday Commission Luncheon Diane Nash, guest speaker
11 a.m. Mon., Jan. 15, 2008 Lansing Center 333 E. Michigan Ave., Lansing For tickets or a table, contact Dakeea Davis at (517) 763-3995 firstname.lastname@example.org