In the vanguard of the national civil rights and antiwar movements from 1959 to 1967, Diane Judith Nash was born on May 15, 1938, in Chicago, Illinois. Reared a Roman Catholic, Nash received her primary and secondary education in the parochial and public schools of Chicago. She began her college career in Washington, D.C., at Howard University and later transferred to Fisk University in Nashville.
At the time of Diane Nash's arrival, racial segregation permeated Nashville. Nash's encounters with the inequities, immorality, and privation of southern segregation led her to seek rectification actively. Early in 1959 she attended workshops on nonviolence directed by the Reverend James Lawson under the auspices of the Nashville Christian Leadership Conference. A strong supporter of the direct nonviolent-protest philosophy, Nash was elected chair of the Student Central Committee. In late 1959 she was among those who “tested” the exclusionary racial policy of Nashville's downtown lunch counters.
The first phase of Nashville's movement began on February 13, 1960, and ended three months later on May 10, when Nashville became the first southern city to desegregate its lunch counters. It was in response to Nash's April 19 query about the immorality of segregation that Mayor Ben West expressed his view that lunch counters should be desegregated and set in motion the events that cracked Nashville's wall of racial segregation.
In April 1960 Nash was one of the founding students of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). The following February, Nash participated in the Rock Hill, South Carolina, protests for desegregation. After she and other students were arrested, they chose incarceration and refused to pay bail. In May, she coordinated the Freedom Rides from Birmingham, Alabama, to Jackson, Mississippi, which were led by Nashville's “nonviolent standing army.” Three months later, at a Highlander Folk School seminar, Nash became the director of the direct-action wing of SNCC. Between 1961 and 1965 she worked for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) as a field staff person, organizer, strategist, and workshop instructor. After her marriage to James Bevel, the couple (later divorced) moved to Jackson, Mississippi, where she was jailed in 1962 for teaching African American children the techniques of direct nonviolent protest. Her ideas were instrumental in initiating the 1963 March on Washington. She and James Bevel conceptualized and planned the initial strategy for the Selma right-to-vote movement that helped produce the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. presented SCLC's Rosa Parks Award to Nash and Bevel in 1965.
Nash's civil rights endeavors led her to the Vietnam peace movement. She continued working for political and social transformation through the 1970s and lectured nationally on the rights of women during the 1980s. An omnipresent voice in the movement for social change, Nash continues to lecture across the country and currently is working in real estate as a resident of Chicago.
Reavis L. Mitchell Jr. and Jessie Carney Smith, “Diane Nash,” in Notable Black American Women (1992): 796-800; Linda T. Wynn, “The Dawning of a New Day: The Nashville Sit-Ins, February 13-May 10, 1960,” Tennessee Historical Quarterly 50 (1991): 42-54