Published on Sunday, January 16, 2005 by The South Bend Tribune (Indiana)
The Daring of Nonviolence
Civil Rights Activist Diane Nash is Sure It has Power to Disarm Injustice
by Howard Dukes
For a young person ready to join the fight to end segregation in Nashville, Tenn., the Rev. James Lawson's civil disobedience workshops were the only game in town.
After a humiliating encounter with Jim Crow segregation at the Tennessee State Fair, Diane Nash wanted in. Still, Nash, a native of Chicago who came south to attend Fisk University in 1959, wasn't sure the concept Lawson was teaching -- nonviolent protest -- could work in America.
Lawson, a pacifist and true believer in nonviolent protest, was imprisoned for 13 months during the Korean War for refusing to be inducted into the military. After his release, he spent four years in India, where Mohandas Gandhi had led a successful nonviolent revolution against British rule. While there, he followed the Montgomery, Ala., bus boycott led by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.
Lawson would eventually enroll in Vanderbilt University's divinity school as a doctoral student. Soon after arriving in Nashville, he began training students in Gandhi's tactics of nonviolent direct action.
Nash started attending Lawson's seminars, which eventually evolved into the sit-ins, after hearing about them.
"I felt outraged (by the blatant racism), and I started looking for organizations that were doing something," Nash says.
But even though Lawson appeared to be doing something, she remained skeptical.
Nash, leader of the 1960 sit-in movement that opened lunch counters in downtown Nashville to blacks, wasn't sure a group of young people could change the system.
She wasn't sure that Lawson respected his young charges enough to surrender control. And she wondered if Lawson would waver if the sit-ins got him expelled from school or subjected to physical harm.
"It was years before I was convinced," says Nash, now a real estate agent in Chicago.
But Nash also was afraid. Even though she quickly emerged as the group's unofficial leader, she wondered if she could withstand the pressure.
Lawson soon started training the students in how they should conduct themselves during the sit-ins. The training involved role playing, which often got rough. Students were cursed, spat upon, had cups of water and food thrown at them. They practiced being pushed and punched. They practiced stifling the urge to fight back or run away.
But no amount of role playing could prepare them for being arrested, and Nash feared jail as much as she feared being attacked by angry mobs of counterprotesters.
"I can remember one time we were in training, and we started talking about going to jail, and I could not imagine myself going to jail," Nash says.
Afterward, Nash says she told some people that she would help in any other way but she wouldn't do anything that would get her arrested.
"I said, 'I'll type, I'll do telephone work, I'll do anything, but I'm not going to jail,' " Nash recalls.
Not wanting to let the other members of the group, who had become her friends, down, she eventually decided to participate and to take the risk of going to jail.
In a way, that made Nash, who will be the featured speaker at Monday's Martin Luther King Day observances, like so many young people then and now.
Jonathan Jackson, a nontraditional student at Indiana University South Bend, works with young people through his involvement with IUSB's Civil Rights Heritage Center.
Jackson, 41, says young people have a reputation for being uninvolved. But he believes if adults assumed the role of mentors and advisers, they would view teenagers and 20-somethings in a different light.
"A lot of times, people accuse kids of being detached and unaware of what is going on around them," says Jackson, one of the students who participated in IUSB's Freedom Summer 2004 history tour of civil rights sites in four Southern states. "But in working with kids, I know that they care."
Overcoming the sense of powerlessness that young people often feel is a major hurdle. It's too easy for the young to get angry about perceived injustice but assume there is nothing they can do to improve the situation, says 19-year-old IUSB student Michelle Hairston, another Freedom Summer 2004 participant.
But Nash refused to be quiet, and that impresses Hairston.
"She showed me how to stand up more for what I believe in and not settle just for being angry," Hairston says.
Lawson eventually made a believer out of Nash. He was expelled from Vanderbilt. He got beat up and tossed in jail along with Nash and the other college students.
And, although he advised the students, he ceded control to undergraduates such as Nash.
Lester Lamon, an Indiana University South Bend history professor, says the student sit-ins injected new energy into a movement that had lost momentum in the four years after the successful Montgomery bus boycott.
The movement had entered its most activist and dangerous phase. It was the young people who would provide the most innovative strategies, take the most risks and pay the greatest cost, Lamon says.
That the students accomplished most of their goals provides insight into the power of young people to make positive change. The movement also serves as a model for the way young people and adults can work together in the 21st century.
"Older people can (provide) support," Nash says. "You have to remember that a lot of wisdom was gained in the 1960s.
"We can pass that wisdom along to the young people."
Some of the issues facing society have changed while others like poverty and war seem to be eternal, Nash says. Then, like now, young people instinctively understand that they have the most to gain by addressing those issues.
"There's the environment and the anti-war movement. There's still a lot of racism. They can address the high percentage of especially black men in prison," Nash says.
The issues seem to multiply, and it's easy to doubt the impact that one person or even a group of people can have. Nash knows that young people today get bombarded with messages that promote materialism and a fatalistic view of the world. Popular culture often extols the virtues of violence. It's easy to see why many young people openly doubt whether love is more powerful than hate and why they may be tempted to equate nonviolence with weakness.
Nash is not dismayed by any of this. After all, she doubted the power of nonviolence before throwing herself into the Nashville sit-ins. And even after the success of that campaign, Nash says she had doubts.
As Nash and the other student activists took on Jim Crow in the deep South states of Alabama and Mississippi, resistance grew as did the violence.
The 1961 Freedom Rides that protested segregation on interstate travel were met with violence in Alabama and Mississippi.
Federal marshals had to protect James Meredith, who integrated the University of Mississippi in 1962.
The list of martyrs grew. Medgar Evers assassinated in front of his Jackson, Miss., home in 1963. The 16th Street Baptist Church bombing that killed four little girls that year in Birmingham.
James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner murdered in Philadelphia, Miss., while registering blacks to vote in 1964. America's deepening involvement in Vietnam in 1965.
Yes, even after the sit-ins, Nash still had doubts about nonviolence.
"I thought to myself that of course violence would be more powerful than nonviolence," Nash says.
Nash wasn't the only person rethinking her beliefs by the mid-1960s. A new philosophy, black power, was ascending.
A younger, more militant group of students assumed leadership roles in the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, the group Nash helped to found. Some of the things they said were positive. Those students spoke of pride and of not backing down. They said that "black is beautiful."
They did not, however, share Lawson's commitment to nonviolence as a way of life.
But all of the critiques of the nonviolent movement could not obscure one fact -- the movement got results.
"A year or so passed, and I realized that I had not done anything but read some (radical) poetry," Nash says.
The process served to deepen Nash's commitment to nonviolence, and it is the major reason why she refuses to become sad that people turn away from nonviolence.
"I think the one major failure in the movement is that we didn't institute programs so young people could learn how to practice nonviolence and live it," Nash says. "We didn't do that."
Now Nash is an elder stateswoman and a true American hero. Like many civil rights veterans, Nash is swamped with invitations to speak about the movement's legacy in January and February. The invitations serve as more than a chance to relive old battles and old victories.
They are a chance to tell young people how they can all be leaders. Students in South Bend will hear that message on Monday.
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