Biography of Diane Nash, Civil Rights Leader and Activist

Activist and singer Harry Belafonte with civil rights leader Diane Nash and Freedom Rider Charles Jones.
Diane Nash (center) with Harry Belafonte (left) and Freedom Rider Charles Jones. Nash cofounded the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee.

Photo by Afro American Newspapers/Gado/Getty Image

Diane Judith Nash (born May 15, 1938) was a key figure in the US Civil Rights Movement. She fought to secure voting rights for African Americans as well as to desegregate lunch counters and interstate travel during the freedom rides. 

Fast Facts: Diane Nash

  • Known For: Civil rights activist who cofounded the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC)
  • Born: May 15, 1938 in Chicago, Illinois
  • Parents: Leon and Dorothy Bolton Nash
  • Education: Hyde Park High School, Howard University, Fisk University
  • Key Accomplishments: Freedom rides coordinator, voting rights organizer, fair housing and nonviolence advocate, and winner of the Southern Christian Leadership Conferences’ Rosa Parks Award
  • Spouse: James Bevel
  • Children: Sherrilynn Bevel and Douglass Bevel
  • Famous Quote: “We presented Southern white racists with a new set of options. Kill us or desegregate.”

Early Years

Diane Nash was born in Chicago to Leon and Dorothy Bolton Nash during a time when Jim Crow, or racial segregation, was legal in the U.S. In the South and in other parts of the country, blacks and whites lived in different neighborhoods, attended different schools, and sat in different sections of buses, trains, and movie theaters. But Nash was taught not to view herself as less than. Her grandmother, Carrie Bolton, particularly gave her a sense of self-worth. As Nash’s son, Douglass Bevel, recalled in 2017:

“My great-grandmother was a woman of great patience and generosity. She loved my mother and told her no one was better than her and made her understand she was a valuable person. There’s no substitute for unconditional love, and my mother is just really a strong testament to what people who have it are capable of.”

Bolton often took care of her when she was a small child because both of Nash’s parents worked. Her father served in World War II and her mother worked as a keypunch operator during wartime. 

When the war ended, her parents divorced, but her mother remarried to John Baker, a waiter for the Pullman railroad company. He belonged to the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, the most influential union for African-Americans. The union gave workers higher pay and more benefits than employees without such representation. 

Her stepfather’s job afforded Nash an excellent education. She attended Catholic and public schools, graduating from Hyde Park High School on Chicago’s south side. She then headed to Howard University in Washington, D.C., and, from there, to Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee, in 1959. In Nashville, Diane Nash saw Jim Crow up close. 

“I started feeling very confined and really resented it,” Nash said. “Every time I obeyed a segregation rule, I felt like I was somehow agreeing I was too inferior to go through the front door or to use the facility that the ordinary public would use.” 

The system of racial segregation inspired her to become an activist, and she oversaw nonviolent protests on the Fisk campus. Her family had to adjust to her activism, but they ultimately supported her efforts.

A Movement Built on Nonviolence

As a Fisk student, Nash embraced the philosophy of nonviolence, associated with Mahatma Gandhi and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. She took classes on the subject run by James Lawson, who’d gone to India to study Gandhi’s methods. Her nonviolence training helped her lead Nashville’s lunch counter sit-ins over a three-month period in 1960. The students involved went to “whites only” lunch counters and waited to be served. Rather than walking away when they were denied service, these activists would ask to speak with managers and were often arrested while doing so.  

Four students, including Diane Nash, had a sit-in victory when the Post House Restaurant served them on March 17, 1960. The sit-ins took place in nearly 70 US cities, and roughly 200 students who took part in the protests traveled to Raleigh, N.C., for an organizing meeting in April 1960. Rather than function as an offshoot of Martin Luther King’s group, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, the young activists formed the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. As a SNCC co-founder, Nash left school to oversee the organization’s campaigns.

Sit-ins continued through the following year, and on February 6, 1961, Nash and three other SNCC leaders went to jail after supporting the “Rock Hill Nine” or “Friendship Nine,” nine students incarcerated after a lunch counter sit-in in Rock Hill, South Carolina. The students would not pay bail after their arrests because they believed paying fines supported the immoral practice of segregation. The unofficial motto of student activists was “jail, not bail.”

While whites-only lunch counters were a big focus of SNCC, the group also wanted to end segregation on interstate travel. Black and white civil rights activists had protested Jim Crow on interstate buses by traveling together; they were known as the freedom riders. But after a white mob in Birmingham, Ala., firebombed a freedom bus and beat the activists on board, organizers called off future rides. Nash insisted they continue.

“The students have decided that we can’t let violence overcome,” she told civil rights leader the Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth. “We are coming into Birmingham to continue the freedom ride.” 

A group of students returned to Birmingham to do just that. Nash began to arrange freedom rides from Birmingham to Jackson, Mississippi, and organize activists to take part in them.

Later that year, Nash protested a grocery store that would not employ African Americans. As she and others stood on the picket line, a group of white boys started throwing eggs and punching some of the protesters. The police arrested both the white attackers and the black demonstrators, including Nash. As she had in the past, Nash refused to pay bail, so she remained behind bars as the others went free. 

Marriage and Activism

The year 1961 stood out for Nash not only because of her role in various movement causes but also because she got married. Her husband, James Bevel, was a civil rights activist, too. 

Marriage didn’t slow down her activism. In fact, while she was pregnant in 1962, Nash had to contend with the possibility of serving out a two-year prison sentence for giving civil rights training to local youth. In the end, Nash served just 10 days in jail, sparing her from the possibility of giving birth to her first child, Sherrilynn, while incarcerated. But Nash was prepared to do so in hopes that her activism could make the world a better place for her child and other children. Nash and Bevel went on to have son Douglass. 

Diane Nash’s activism attracted the attention of President John F. Kennedy, who selected her to serve on a committee to develop a national civil rights platform, which later became the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The next year, Nash and Bevel planned marches from Selma to Montgomery to support voting rights for African Americans in Alabama. When the peaceful protesters tried to cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge to head to Montgomery, police severely beat them. 

Stunned by images of law enforcement agents brutalizing the marchers, Congress passed the 1965 Voting Rights Act. Nash and Bevel’s efforts to secure voting rights for black Alabamians resulted in the Southern Christian Leadership Conference awarding them the Rosa Parks Award. The couple would divorce in 1968. 

Legacy and Later Years

After the Civil Rights Movement, Nash returned to her hometown of Chicago, where she still lives today. She worked in real estate and has participated in activism related to fair housing and pacifism alike. 

With the exception of Rosa Parks, male civil rights leaders have typically received most of the credit for the freedom struggles of the 1950s and ’60s. In the decades since, however, more attention has been paid to women leaders like Ella Baker, Fannie Lou Hamer, and Diane Nash. 

In 2003, Nash won the Distinguished American Award from the John F. Kennedy Library and Foundation. The following year, she received the LBJ Award for Leadership in Civil Rights from the Lyndon Baines Johnson Library and Museum. And in 2008, she won the Freedom Award from the National Civil Rights Museum. Both Fisk University and the University of Notre Dame have awarded her honorary degrees.

Nash’s contributions to civil rights have also been captured in film. She appears in the documentaries “Eyes on the Prize” and the “Freedom Riders,” and in the 2014 civil rights biopic “Selma”, in which she’s portrayed by actress Tessa Thompson. She is also the focus of historian David Halberstam's book “Diane Nash: The Fire of the Civil Rights Movement.”