Diane Nash urges today’s activists to apply techniques of the Civil Rights Movement

Principles of nonviolence from the 1960s are the best strategy for today’s social movements, civil rights icon Diane Nash told a Battell Chapel audience the evening of Jan. 25.

Nash, a former student activist and co-founder of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), gave an address titled “Courage, Conflict, and Creative Maladjustment: Speaking Truth to Power Across Generations.” The address was the centerpiece of campus celebrations honoring the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. 

“Proud to be maladjusted”

N’Kosi Oates DIV ’17, an organizer of the event, explained that the theme of this year’s address was derived from King’s 1963 speech at Western Michigan University, where he said, “There are certain things in our nation and in the world which I am proud to be maladjusted and which I hope all men of good will be maladjusted,” listing among them segregation, discrimination, religious bigotry, economic injustice, militarism, and physical violence.

In introductory remarks Yale College Dean Jonathan Holloway recalled a question King asked in another famous speech, delivered in August 1967: “Where do we go from here?” 

“My friends, we are facing difficult days,” Holloway said. “The days are long, and the way forward is uncertain. How fortunate we are that we have as our guest tonight Diane Nash.”

Nash opened her remarks with thoughts on King, with whom she worked at the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. “Martin had many qualities that I deeply admired,” she said. “He was capable of change and growth. He was steadfast. He worked hard and efficiently. I remember often being amazed by the amount of work he could grind out in a day.”

Encountering overt segregation

Nash recalled first encountering overt segregation when she arrived at Fisk University in the fall of 1959. Nash was outraged at the “degrading and humiliating” practices she experienced in Nashville. “When I obeyed segregation rules, it felt like I was agreeing that I was too inferior to go through front doors or into certain restaurants.”

Nash linked up with James Lawson, a Vanderbilt University divinity student who had been to India to study Gandhi’s non-violent movement and was offering weekly workshops in Nashville.  “I am a lucky woman,” she told the capacity crowd in Battell. “I was in the right place at the right time. I received an excellent education in non-violence, and had the opportunity to practice it with Lawson and others until I learned how” to implement it.

Nash is widely recognized for her leadership in the first successful campaign to integrate lunch counters in Nashville in 1960, while still an undergraduate at Fisk. She subsequently coordinated the Nashville Student Movement Ride, part of the 1961 Freedom Rides desegregating interstate bus travel. During the rides, she served as a liaison among the student movement, the press, and the U.S. Department of Justice.

The first riders to depart from Nashville suffered firebombing and beatings in Alabama as they made their way toward New Orleans. “That was a seminal moment for the civil rights movement,” Nash recalled. 

“I realized that if the Freedom Rides stopped right after such massive violence was inflicted, the message would be sent that it’s possible to stop a non-violent campaign.” Nash and her fellow organizers — whom she called “seasoned troops” — decided the same day to continue the rides.

Nash went on to play an integral role in the Birmingham desegregation campaign of 1963 and the Selma voting rights campaign of 1965, which led to the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Watch several short videos about Nash’s life and legacy here.

Women in the movement

Nash described principles of non-violence and encouraged today’s activists, including students, to practice them. Non-violence is not simply the absence of violence, she noted: It is active and activist, not passive or pacifist. People are not the enemy, Nash stated — unjust economic and political systems are. She added that oppression always requires the cooperation of the oppressed. If the oppressed withdraw their cooperation, the system will fall, she said.

Campaigns of non-violent resistance are applicable today, but people need to understand the strategy, Nash said. “We know it works. We have a better way to wage war.” She shared the six phases of such a campaign, which go beyond just protest. They include investigation, education, negotiation, demonstration, resistance, and, finally, steps to ensure the problem does not recur.

Nash emphasized nature of the civil rights movement as a people’s movement, rather than the creation of only one leader. When facing a contemporary social challenge, she said, “You might say, ‘I wish we had a great leader like a Martin Luther King today to do this.’ But if you understand it was a people’s movement, you will say, ‘What can I do?’”

A final theme in Nash’s address was the role of women in the movement. She offered a long list of duties women undertook, from making food for protestors to teaching in citizenship schools to spending time in jail. “Women could and did perform all tasks necessary to the movement. Besides Rosa Parks, few people can name women in the civil rights movement and what their contributions were,” she said.

She cited several examples of important women who are not as well known as men in the movement.  Ella Baker, for example, had the idea for the conference out of which SNCC developed, and was an important mentor to SNCC and to Nash. Fannie Lou Hamer, who organized Mississippi’s Freedom Summer, was jailed and beaten. “Once she got involved in the movement, it was much easier to recruit other people,” Nash said. “People figured if Miss Hamer was involved, it must be all right.”

Educate and strategize and “march on”

Risë Nelson, director of the Afro-American Cultural Center and assistant dean of Yale College, commented in her closing remarks on the African American women whose contributions are not fully known and recognized. “It is no coincidence that ‘Hidden Figures,’ the book and the movie, have reached so many across the nation and world,” Nelson said. There’s a reason why throngs of people came out to support the Women’s March. We need these oftentimes lesser known, but true, stories out there. We need to amplify the voices and experiences, challenges and successes of women — especially those marginalized by race, class, sexuality, citizenship, ability — across the world. We need to recognize our ‘sheroes’ and how they have always been a part of, and often at the helm of, this work.”

“Ms. Nash,” Nelson continued, “you are a reminder that we will have a seat at the tables that matter. We will be heard, we will be respected, we will be paid — equally — and if that doesn’t happen, we will educate and strategize and march on, continuing to move this world forward, and all those who love us and who love justice must support us and help us break down these walls between people and between countries, brick by brick.”

The evening began with a performance by the New Haven School of African Dance and Drumming. Shades of Yale, an a capella group, performed “We Shall Overcome” and “Amen,” which included a recitation of Maya Angelou’s poem “Still I Rise” by Idonia Thomas, a class of 2017 student at Common Ground High School. Following the address, Clifton Graves of New Haven’s Project Fresh Start prison re-entry program presented Nash with a citation from Mayor Toni Harp ’78 M.E.D.

The event was co-sponsored by the Yale College Dean’s Office, Afro-American Cultural Center, Office of the Secretary and Vice President of Student Life, and Dwight Hall Center for Public Service and Social Justice. The 2017 MLK planning committee was chaired by Risë Nelson. Other members of the committee can be found here.

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