Civil rights leader marks March on Washington anniversary at BGSU
BOWLING GREEN, O.— “I found segregation humiliating. Every time I obeyed a segregation law, I felt like I was agreeing that I was too inferior to use a facility that the general public could use,” civil rights activist Diane Nash said.
The civil rights movement was in high gear by the 1960s, and activists all over the country were trying to come up with creative strategies to make progress both politically and culturally.
A group of students in the South came together in 1960 to form the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), which would play a key role in the legendary March on Washington on Aug. 28, 1963, a turning point in the nation’s history. Among those founding members was Nash.
In commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, Bowling Green State University’s Department of Ethnic Studies welcomes Nash to campus on Oct. 24. She will speak at 6 p.m. in 228 Bowen-Thompson Student Union on “The Movements of the ’60s: A Legacy for Today.” BGSU President Mary Ellen Mazey will provide the introduction. The event is free and open to the public, with a reception after the presentation.
Dr. Thomas Edge, an instructor in the Department of Ethnic Studies, has been working on the March on Washington celebration since August 2012, with the help of the department chair Dr. Vibha Bhalla, administrative assistant Stephanie Rader and director of the School of Cultural and Critical Studies Susana Pena.
Edge hopes Nash’s visit will inspire BGSU students.
“So much of the energy and force behind the civil rights movement came from people like Diane Nash, who was only 21 years old when she joined the sit-ins. Students need to realize that they have much more power than they know, and Nash’s example highlights this,” he said.
Nash grew up on the south side of Chicago before leaving in 1959 to attend Fisk University in Nashville, Tenn. In Chicago, segregation was less obvious, Nash said. But in Nashville, she experienced, for the first time, signs and posters above water fountains and in waiting rooms, bathrooms and restaurants that read “Colored,” “Colored Only,” “White” and “White Only.”
Nash admits she was scared of being a leader but felt fighting this discrimination was the only option.
“The alternative was to tolerate segregation. I was willing to do what was necessary to eradicate it,” Nash said.
At the age of 22, Nash became the leader of sit-ins in Nashville, in which protesters would sit at whites-only lunch counters. The group pledged to be nonviolent, but people upset with the protesters did not make that same pledge.
At the height of the sit-in controversy, Nash met with Nashville Mayor Ben West. She asked him, “Do you feel that it is wrong to discriminate against a person solely on the basis of his race or color?” The mayor replied he could not say it was right to discriminate against someone based on the color of his skin. Following that pivotal exchange, Nashville became the first Southern city to desegregate lunch counters.
Nash also played a part in the national civil rights movement. She was a key organizer of the Freedom Rides and helped develop the Alabama movement for voting rights that led to the Selma-to-Montgomery March.
Fifty years ago, her husband, James Bevel, and she helped organize the March on Washington. Bevel came up with the idea to camp out on the White House lawn, and Nash wrote letters of invitations and made many phone calls, she said.
“He and I worked so hard recruiting people in Alabama to go to Washington, that when we realized that everyone would be gone, and we could get some rest and watch on television, we did that,” Nash said.
She has received numerous awards for her achievements including the Rosa Parks Award from the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and the Freedom Award from the National Civil Rights Museum.
Nash currently works for an organization in Mississippi that works toward improving the lives of black Mississippians.
Students and audience members at her BGSU talk will have the chance to ask Nash questions at the end of the presentation.
“Some of the same issues facing civil rights activists 50 years ago are still with us, along with new variations on old problems,” she said. Her talk will highlight this theme.
For more information on her presentation at BGSU, contact the Department of Ethnic Studies at 419-372-2796.