Civil rights activist speaks at Goodwin College

By Evan Pajer - Staff Writer
East Hartford - posted Thu., Jan. 24, 2013
Diane Nash, a civil rights activist seen here speaking in Glastonbury, helped found the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee and organized the second wave of Freedom Rides. Photo by Steve Smith.
Diane Nash, a civil rights activist seen here speaking in Glastonbury, helped found the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee and organized the second wave of Freedom Rides. Photo by Steve Smith.

On Jan. 22, just one day after the observation of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s birthday, civil rights activist Diane Nash spoke to members of the Goodwin College community, including students from the college and a large group from the Connecticut River Academy. Nash, a Chicago native, gave her perspective on the movement and what it means today.

Goodwin College President Mark Scheinberg said that Nash serves as a living history lesson. "Swahili has two words for history - one for history that people were alive for and remember, and one for history that is written and no one is alive for. We are on the cusp of going from one to the other," he said.

Nash said that her involvement with the civil rights movement began when she helped to found the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) at Fisk University in Nashville, Tenn., where she was a student. Nash said the SNCC received a letter from the Congress of Racial Equality in 1961, and that was where her involvement with the Freedom Riders began. The letter detailed the plans for the first group of riders, who would ride segregated interstate bus systems, including Greyhound and Trailway, from Washington, D.C., to New Orleans.

"When I read that notice, I thought they were likely to need some help, and I said in our newsletter that we in Nashville would be standing by," Nash said. The first wave of rides ended badly, with the riders experiencing violence shortly after crossing into Alabama. "They were beaten so badly that they decided to call the Freedom Rides off and fly to New Orleans," Nash said. "I didn't blame them for deciding to end the project."

Nash said that she worked with many different civil rights organizations to form a second wave of freedom rides. Among those organizations were the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, which was headed by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Nashville Christian Leadership Council. "We called them 'the adults,'" she said. "They handled all the money."

Nash said that her decision to launch a second wave of freedom rides was a tough one. "I don't know how I did it, how any of us did it at our age," she said. "It was a huge responsibility because the safety and perhaps the lives of people I cared about depended on my job as coordinator." Nash said that she kept in touch with members of the federal Department of Justice, who urged her not to continue the rides. "People told us to wait and let things cool down, but we knew it was a critical moment because if we let things cool down, we sent the message that we could be stopped," Nash said. "If it appeared that violence could stop non-violence, any kind of movement would not be possible."

Nash said that the second wave of freedom rides was also marked by violence. "We had a hard time finding bus drivers. One of them said, 'Well, you're all freedom riders, but I have a wife and family,'" Nash said. Nash said that during one meeting in a church in Montgomery, Ala., a group of assailants set cars on fire and threatened to enter the church. "The army was sent in," Nash said. "We had to stay in the church until sunrise. It was disturbing to me to see so much violence. They had to drive us out in jeeps the next day."

Nash ended her talk with words of advice for River Academy and Goodwin students. "I consider myself a very lucky woman. I was in the right place at the right time to get an education in non-violence," she said. Nash said she studied the non-violence movement of Mahatma Gandhi as she led the freedom rides and other protests. Nash said that she based her actions on Gandhi's three elements of non-violence, which she said were "truth, love and self-suffering."

"People are not your enemies," Nash said. "Politics, economics, racism - those are enemies. If you realize that people are not the enemy, you can change their points of view. The problem with violence is that you kill the individual and leave the principles untouched." Nash said she saw the civil rights movement as the black community changing itself. "The only person you can change is yourself," she said. "We changed ourselves into people who could not be segregated, and the world had to follow."

Nash gave the example of the bus boycotts in Montgomery: "In order for the buses to segregate, black people had to pay for a ticket and head to the back of the bus. When the oppressed withdrew their cooperation, the system collapsed," she said. "Oppression always requires the consent of the oppressed. It's a two-way system."

Nash encouraged the students to become what she called "powerful people."

"It is very hard to be a truly powerful person, and I hope you give some thought to that," she said. "We were trying to bring about a society that would be better for the next generation. The next generation will depend on you."

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