Chicago native and Civil Rights pioneer Diane Nash was central to the movement to end Jim Crow and segregation.
Nash transferred to Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee in the late '50s and was unprepared for the level of degrading racial discrimination prevalent in the South. Nash was embarrassed to learn that she and her Black colleagues were unable to receive service in certain establishments because of race.
Nash spoke to this cultural change, stating, "I grew up on the south side of Chicago. And although I experienced segregation there, it was not the overt kind with signs on water fountains and restrooms. It was humiliating." This motivated Nash to seek radical change. She became the leader of the Nashville sit-in movement.
Despite numerous violent attacks perpetrated by white Southerners opposing the protest, Nash and fellow demonstrators continued the movement. Since Nash was a staunch believer in nonviolent protest, she required folks who joined to agree not to retaliate. So, the protesters were punched, kicked, had food and hot coffee poured on them, and they continued to sit demanding their humanity be recognized.
Once Nash became the face of the movement, media attention on her grew and she became a target of white supremacist backlash. Though she as admittedly terrified, she continued to march and sit-in. Nash was the ideal spokesperson for the movement. She was beautiful, well-spoken, and at ease in front of the camera. This poise is largely attributed to her experience in teen beauty pageants while living in Chicago.
Nash was arrested dozens of times. After consulting fellow Civil Rights icon John Lewis, the two led a movement of refusing to pay bail as a matter of principle. The success and popularity of the sit-ins led to a decline in tourism in Nashville. This prompted Nashville mayor ben West to intervene and seek compromise. But Nash made it clear when she spoke into the cameras present that any compromise would have to begin with the humanity of Black Americans being recognized. Nash's legendary question that changed the course of the movement was:
"Mayor West, do you feel that it's wrong to discriminate against a person solely on the basis of his race or color?"
Mayor West in an interview responded:
"I could not agree that it's morally right for someone to sell them merchandise then refuse them service."
Nash is also responsible for helping to form the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, more commonly known as SNCC (pronounced "snick"). Nash eventually left Fisk to work with SNCC full-time. Later, Nash took over responsibility of the Freedom Rides from Birmingham, Alabama to Jackson, Mississippi.
President John F. Kennedy recognized Nash's accomplishments and tireless efforts by appointing her to a national committee that led to the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act.