Diane Judith Nash was born on May 15, 1938, in Chicago, Illinois, Nash grew up middle-class and raised Catholic. Her father, Leon, served in the military as a clerk during World War II, and her mother, Dorothy Bolton, was a keypunch operator. Her parents divorced and her mom later remarried. Diane Nash attended both public and Catholic schools. She considered becoming a nun at one point in her youth. Nash first attended Howard University in Washington D.C. but then transferred to Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee. She witnessed severe racial segregation, prompting her to participate in the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and nonviolent protests. In 1960, she was designated as the student sit-in movement’s chairperson in Nashville.
On February 6, 1961, she participated in a sit-in at a lunch counter in Rock Hill, South Carolina, with Ruby Doris Smith, Charles Jones, and Charles Sherrod. They were all arrested, and the men were sentenced to hard labor. Diane Nash was on the front lines in the Freedom Rides to fight for the desegregation of public transportation down in the South. In 1961, she coordinated the Nashville Student Movement Ride from Birmingham, Alabama, to Jackson, Mississippi after learning of the bus burning in the Alabama city of Anniston and the riot in Birmingham. “It was clear to me that if we allowed the Freedom Ride to stop at that point, just after so much violence had been inflicted, the message would have been sent that all you have to do to stop a nonviolent campaign is inflict massive violence,” said Nash in the 2010 documentary Freedom Riders.
Throughout the Ride, Diane Nash recruited new Riders, alerted the press of their efforts, and forged relationships with the federal government and national Movement leaders, including Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. She eventually left college to become a full-time activist for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) in 1961. She moved to Jackson, Mississippi, in 1961, to head the SCLC campaigns to register people to vote and desegregate schools. Although her work was applauded by fellow civil rights activists, she endured numerous arrests for the cause. In fact, she spent time in jail while she was pregnant with her first child; her crime was teaching nonviolent tactics to children.
Diane Nash played a major role in the Selma Voting Rights Campaign that eventually led to the Voting Rights Act of 1965. She was also appointed to a national committee by President John F. Kennedy that promoted passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. In 1965 Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. awarded Nash and her husband, James Bevel, SCLC’s Rosa Parks award for their contributions to civil rights. The couple had two children but divorced in 1968.
Diane Nash was named a recipient of the Distinguished American Award from the John F. Kennedy Library and Foundation in 2003 and the LBJ Award of Leadership in Civil Rights from the Lyndon Baines Johnson Library and Museum the following year. Additionally, she has been awarded honorary doctorates from Fisk University and the University of Notre Dame. She lives and works in her hometown of Chicago where she continues to peacefully advocate for fair housing, women’s rights, and social justice.