By: Alexandra Stepp, IU Bicentennial Oral History Project, Class of 2019, History, IU Southeast
Besides conducting oral histories, one of my favorite parts about working on the IU Bicentennial Oral History Project is searching through archives for important and intriguing events from IU Southeast’s history.
One event I found particularly interesting was Diane Nash’s visit to IU Southeast. In my studies through the class Civil Rights Era in the United States, taught by Dr. Elizabeth Gritter who also heads the IU Bicentennial Oral History Project at IU Southeast, I learned that Nash was a key figure in the Civil Rights Movement. She was particularly active in the local movement in Nashville, Tennessee.
Details of Nash’s visit were reported in the student newspaper The Horizon. The presentation, titled “What Should People Interested in Struggling for Liberation be Doing Now,” took place at 8 p.m. on February 7, 1990, as a part of Black History Month. Prior to the event, clips of Eyes on the Prize, an esteemed documentary series on the Civil Rights Movement in which Nash is featured, were shown in the University Center on campus. Nash spoke in the Hoosier Room, and the event was free to the public.
For Nash, the event was not just in honor of Black History Month, but it also was meaningful in that it occurred almost thirty years exactly to the day the Nashville sit-ins began in 1960. When these sit-ins started, Nash was just 22 years old and a student at Fisk University in Nashville.
Originally from Chicago, Nash was not fully exposed to the injustices of racial segregation in the south until she came to Fisk. While discrimination certainly existed toward African Americans in the north, it was the intensity of the discrimination in the south that pushed Nash to attend meetings on nonviolent resistance led by James Lawson.
Lawson, a well-known activist, had studied the nonviolent principles of Gandhi and taught these principles to students in Nashville as they prepared to protest segregation in restaurants. Nash used these meetings to begin the Nashville Student Movement alongside John Lewis and other budding activists. This organization was comprised of the student activists and initiated the sit-ins in Nashville.
The Nashville sit-ins were not the first in the movement, however. On February 1, 1960, four college students from Greensboro, North Carolina, initiated this form of protest at a Woolworth’s lunch counter in that city. Nashville soon participated in the wave of sit-ins that followed which began on February 13, 1960.
The movement soon gained over two hundred people. After encountering much violence from white reactionaries, including the bombing of the home of black lawyer Z. Alexander Looby who had defended the sit-inners, the movement soon grew to thousands who marched to city hall. It is here that Nash, determined and impassioned, asked Mayor Ben West if he personally believed that segregation was morally right. He responded that he did not believe that segregation was right. As a result, businesses soon agreed to integrate.
In her presentation, Nash, at age 52, was still encouraging others to fight for liberation and the social issues in which they believed. She told the students who attended the event that they were the ones who made change. “The Civil Rights Movement was classified by the media as King’s movement,” she said. “However, it was really a people’s movement.”
She set forth a strategy for how students could achieve liberation. Instead of just encouraging nonviolent resistance, she spoke of what she called “agapic energy.” She defined such energy as acting out of love for humanity, something she found deeper than nonviolence.
One could exercise this energy through five steps. Nash told the audience that these steps include “investigation of the situation and how the oppressed are addressing the situation; education of the opposition; negotiating to explain your position; demonstration against the oppressor to win public support; and, once the object has been reached, taking measures to prevent the oppression from occurring again.”
After Nash participated in the sit-ins, she continued to raise awareness about the issues plaguing African Americans. She went on to be a Freedom Rider in 1961, protesting the segregation of public transportation in the south. She also participated in a meeting hosted by esteemed civil rights advocate Ella Baker after the Nashville sit-ins–a meeting which led to the creation of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC).
It is not surprising, then, that Nash encouraged students throughout the interview and during the following questions, including those from the Black Student Union on campus, to make an effort to make change even if the leadership for a movement did not yet exist.
The students of IU Southeast were told to create their own movement. Nash left them by stating, “It is time we quit being a nation trying to dull its pain.” In other words, she told them it was time to take a stand.
Diane Nash is now 79. She continues to give speeches and presentations and maintains her efforts in protesting for what she believes is right. Such determination characterized her early life and shone through her presentation to the IU Southeast campus.
One can only imagine how impassioned those who attended the presentation must have been.