Freedom Rider, sit-ins leader to speak Wednesday

By Linda Weiford, WSU News

Nash,-lunch-counter-60PULLMAN, Wash. – In in the early 1960s, Diane Nash dared to sit at a restaurant counter that served whites only. She directed the famed Freedom Rider buses across the Deep South. She served time in a Jackson, Miss., jail. Pregnant.

“Who the hell is Diane Nash?” asked U.S. Attorney General Robert Kennedy when he learned that a female student leader was refusing to stop the Freedom Rides into the heart of Dixie, despite threats of violence.

Find out for yourself who Diane Nash is when she speaks at Washington State University at 7 p.m. Wednesday in the CUB ballroom. The free, public presentation is part of WSU’s celebration to commemorate the birthday of Martin Luther King, Jr.

Marc Robinson, who helped bring Diane Nash to WSU, first learned of her heroic civil rights work when he was a college student. (Photo by Robert Hubner, WSU Photo Services)

“She was a primary architect in shaping the civil rights movement of that era and it’s an honor she’s coming to our campus,” said Marc Robinson, who directs WSU’s Culture and Heritage Houses and has taught students about Nash’s influences in his black-studies university classes.

In 1961, a New York Times article described Nash this way: “The driving force behind the Nashville student protest group is a spirited Negro girl from Chicago,” wrote the late David Halberstam, who later published the book, “The Children,” spotlighting the efforts of Nash and other activists who took on racial segregation (Random Books, 1999).


Nash, second from right, at a restaurant counter.

Nash was a college student at Fisk University in Nashville, Tenn., when she became a founding member of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee – a small group of students who launched a new phase of the civil rights movement by organizing lunch counter sit-ins.

“We had to enter back doors of buildings or we were refused entry altogether. It was humiliating. It was dehumanizing,” said Nash in an interview more than a half-century later. “If we had waited for our elected officials to stop segregation, we’d still be entering buildings through back doors.”

Nash helps lead a march to city hall in Nashville, Tenn.

Besides the sit-ins, Nash coordinated the Freedom Rides, where several hundred black and white activists traveled by bus into the South to protest segregation laws. Spanning six months, the campaign is documented in the award-winning PBS film “Freedom Riders,” aired in 2010. (To watch it, go to

After Klansmen firebombed a bus in Alabama, John Seigenthaler, a top advisor to the U.S. Justice Department’s Kennedy, called Nash and tried to persuade her to call off the rides.

“I’m saying, ‘You’re going to get somebody killed,’ recalls Seigenthaler in the film. ‘She says, ‘You don’t understand.’ And she’s right, I didn’t understand. And she says, ‘You don’t understand; we signed our wills last night.’ ”

From ordinary to extraordinary

At 75, Nash hasn’t lost her convictions: “The movement’s approach of using peaceful confrontation opened eyes to the reality of racism,” she said. “If I were younger? Yes, I’d do it all over again.”

Robinson, who helped organize Nash’s visit to WSU, hopes her talk imparts in students a sense of what they, too, can achieve.

“She was an ordinary college student, and yet she became the leader of a movement that left an important mark on our nation,” he said. “We were forever changed.”

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Author Michael Eric Dyson will speak at WSU at 7 p.m. Wednesday, Jan. 29, also in the CUB ballroom. His fiery speaking style led a Chronicle of Higher Education reporter to write that he “can rock the classroom and the chapel alike.”

For more information on the visits by Nash and Dyson, go to:

WSU sponsors include the Office of the President, the Office of Equity and Diversity, the College of Arts and Sciences, the College of Education, the Graduate School and the Compton Union Building.



Marc Robinson, WSU Culture and Heritage Houses, 509-339-6172,

Linda Weiford, WSU News, 509-335-7209,