Diane Judith Nash was born on May 15, 1938, in Chicago, Illinois. She was raised in a middle-class, Catholic household. Her father, Leon, served as a clerk in the military. Her mother, Dorothy Bolton, worked as a keypunch operator. After her parents got a divorce, Dorothy married John Baker, a Pullman porter.
Nash attended both public and Catholic schools. She considered becoming a nun at one point in her childhood. In 1956, she graduated from Hyde Park High School. Shortly thereafter, she enrolled in courses at the HBCU, Howard University. She later transferred to Fisk University in 1959. There she experienced vehement racism and segregation.
As a result of the bigotry she experienced, Nash decided to join the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). By 1960, the committee designated her the student sit-in movement’s chairperson in Nashville. On February 6, 1961, she led a student sit-in at a lunch counter in Rock Hill, South Carolina. She and the four other protesters were arrested.
Nash played a major role in the Freedom Rides. The Freedom Rides were an attempt to desegregate public transportation in the American South. She coordinated the Nashville Student Movement Ride from Birmingham, Alabama to Jackson, Mississippi in 1961. After capturing the attention of MLK, she dropped out of school to work for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) full-time.
While working for the SCLC, Nash moved to Jackon, Mississippi in 1961. She led campaigns to register people to vote and desegregate schools. Although her work was heralded by other activists, she was often arrested for her efforts. While she was pregnant with her first child, she was arrested and imprisoned for teaching nonviolent protesting tactics to children.
Nash was appointed to a national committee by President John F. Kennedy. The committee advocated for the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The following year, she played an important role in the Selma Voting Rights Campaign. That campaign resulted in the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
Over the course of her career as an activist, Nash has received numerous awards and accolades. She received the SCLC’s Rosa Parks award and two honorary doctorate degrees from Fisk University and the University of Notre Dame among other honors. At the age of 80, Diane Nash lives in her hometown of Chicago, Illinois where she continues to fight for equality.
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