by M. Abdul-Qawiyy
Known for her involvement in the Civil Rights Movement and Student Nonviolent Coordination Committee, Diane Nash spoke of her experiences as a young woman and challenged the students to get involved in change as the keynote speaker for the Pitt Black Action Society, Jan. 17 at the William Pitt Assembly room.
“Every individual and generation has challenges. Step up to meet your challenges and identify the problem,” Nash said. “Study. Take action. Remember that what you’re doing is important. This is for the generations to come. Because back in the 1960s, even though we didn’t meet you, we loved you. The future generations will depend on you to do the same.”
Nash and many others were a part of the Freedom Riders, a group of civil rights activists, who travelled into the segregated South in order to challenge the unequal custom of segregation. Even though, the Supreme Court had ruled against segregation, in reality places were still very segregated in the 1960s—and violently so.
The Freedom Riders were vulnerable to attacks. Once a bus travelling through Alabama was attacked; the tires were slashed and the bus was firebombed, she said. Attackers trapped freedom riders, but they eventually escaped. Even so, once out of the bus, they were violently beaten and threatened to be lynched.
“I was a student at Fisk University and we had a successful campaign.” Nash explained that Freedom Riders received extensive training and were even prepared on how to conduct themselves if they were arrested and taken to jail.
“If we allowed the freedom rides to stop, then it would have been okay to let the violence continue,” Nash added.
The group of Freedom Riders that Nash was directly affiliated with worried that they could be seriously injured or even killed. Thus they agreed and selected Nash to stay behind and deliver letters to their families in the unfortunate event of their demise.
“I was elected to contact people,” Nash said. “And a lot of my motivation came out of fear.” For safety measures a phone was installed in their office so that they could call in with any problems. “In the 1960’s call waiting did not exist,” Nash said. “Calls were coming in from all over the country and we needed to make sure that Freedom Riders got through.”
The Freedom Riders were invited to the oval office and were offered a deal if they stopped direct action, then they were promised to receive significant financial support, she said. This caused a divide within the group; however, they reached a compromise that did not deflate their efforts.
“The Kennedy administration wasn’t with the freedom riders,” she said. “The good of the people, it seemed, was not the priority of the politicians.”
Even though there were discouragements, the freedom rides and protests continued. Nash explained the difference between a protest and anti-violence movement.
“A protest is when you do not like what is going on and then you take the necessary steps to communicate that you don’t like what is happening,” Nash explained. “But a non-violent campaign is when you bring about the change that you want to achieve. In the 1960’s we didn’t know if non-violence would work, but looking back it did.”
Nash also reminded the audience that the Freedom Riders were still very human and had shared good memories. She reminisced on meeting celebrities that supported their civil rights efforts.
“Once we actually had a meeting with Harry Belafonte for several days. He was interested in helping and did so through publicity,” she said. “But all I could think was ‘I’m four feet away from Harry Belafonte’ and missed what was happening in the meeting!” The audience rippled with laughter. “During the meeting, there was a knock on the door and when I opened it, Sidney Poitier stood before me.” She stopped mid-sentence, as if reliving that very moment. “Well being in a meeting with Harry Belafonte and seeing Sidney Poitier, all within five minutes was too much strain on my mind.” Laughter echoed throughout the room as she began to giggle as well.
Recognizing the efforts and the sacrifices made during the Civil Rights Movement is crucial for both current and future generations to appreciate the opportunities they have. One person that is nationally recognized is, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. His legacy is deeply rooted in the movement and he is not only honored, but remembered on the national holiday, surrounding his birthday, Jan. 15; it was celebrated this year on Jan. 16, because national holidays fall on Mondays.
Dr. King comes to the forefront of one’s mind when the Civil Rights Movement is mentioned; however, Nash wanted to clarify, “History books make it seem as though it was Martin’s movement, but it was not, it was the people’s movement. It was all of us united together for a cause. He was the spokesperson and was deeply dedicated to what we were doing. And I am not trying to discredit his efforts, but he was not alone. We must remember never to discount the contributions of others.”
Nash, who was in her early 20s at the time, worked closely with Dr. King. “We had vigorous disagreements,” she laughed, “but Martin was capable of change and growth.”
When asked about her reaction to Dr. King’s assassination Nash replied, “It devastated me and it’s really hard to put into words. It was a horrible crime. He didn’t deserve anything like that.” She went on to explain, “his assassination and many others, like Malcolm X, were deliberate attempts to change the fact that we were saying we were Black and we were treated badly and we were changing that. There was a lot of blood. A lot of sacrifice. It was about adults being their own leaders.”
Nash emphasized that violence is not needed for an individual or group to cause change. She suggested that one analyze how he/she is participating in his/her own oppression. “Oppression always requires the cooperation of the oppressed. It is a partnership. It is something the oppressed and the oppressor do. Sometimes we have power in a situation, adjust and accept the situation or change the relationship. But remember, people are never the enemy, it’s their attitude. You can attack the attitude, with love for the person. The problem is the person’s racism, but not the person.”
“Voting is very important, but not enough. We citizens must take matters in our own hands. If we had waited for the government to change what was happening in the 60’s, we’d be waiting for those same social issues to change. There’s no one to solve the problems but you and me. When it comes to social change some people read, talk, but don’t do much action. But if you just talk and read about a job, you won’t have a job, right? You must take action.”
Uchenna Offor, a social action co-chair for Black Action Society, “BAS is a student led organization and we wanted to have more events that focused on Black consciousness. When we met Ms. Nash she told us that unity comes out of struggle. This was a really inspiring event for the Black Action Society.”
Taylor Montague, a student at the University of Pittsburgh and a member of BAS commented, “I thought Ms. Nash’s talk was very informative. Being aware of our history and learning that there were those during the Civil Rights Movement that are not usually recognized was moving. What we need to do is go to our grandparents and ask questions and share these personal accounts with our friends. And mostly, we need to think about the generations before us.”
Sherdina Harper, Coordinator of Cross Cultural Programming at the University of Pittsburgh, commented on the event, “I think this event with Ms. Nash went very well. It empowered students to create and build just communities for themselves.”
The event was sponsored by the Black Action Society of the University of Pittsburgh. Opening remarks were made by BAS President, Halim Genus, and an introduction given by Diamond Gordon.