Freedom Rider speaks at Pitt

By Gwenn Barney

Freedom Rider Diane Nash put on a brave face in the presence of racial violence and hatred as a… Freedom Rider Diane Nash put on a brave face in the presence of racial violence and hatred as a leader in the civil rights movement, but Tuesday night one question almost brought her to tears.

During the question-and-answer portion of Nash’s lecture, hosted by Pitt’s Black Action Society, one student stood up and asked her how she felt when Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated.

After a long pause, Nash answered.

“It devastated me,” she said, with the emotion of that day still fresh in her eyes. “I don’t think the vacuum that he left has been filled yet. That’s a really hard thing to put into words. Martin certainly wasn’t a man who deserved anything like that.”

Nash, most famous for her efforts in the Freedom Rides of the 1960s, spoke to an audience of more than 50 people in the William Pitt Union Ballroom. The speech, which focused on Nash’s time as a Freedom Rider and lessons on social change, is part of a week full of Black Action Society-sponsored events to honor King and other civil rights leaders.

“We want to remind people that while Martin Luther King Jr. was a face of the movement, he was one face of the movement. While we appreciate the life and legacy of Martin Luther King Jr., we also recognize the importance of other people crucial to the civil rights movement,” Black Action Society President Halim Genus said.

Nash agreed with Genus’s sentiment on the importance of other leaders.

“There couldn’t have been a better spokesman [for the civil rights movement] than Dr. King, but I don’t think it’s correct to discount the other geniuses of the movement. There were other people whose contributions were as great as Martin Luther King Jr.’s” Nash said.

Nash said that she worked closely with King through her involvement with the Freedom Rides, even going on a double-date with her husband and King and his wife Coretta.

“Martin probably had mixed feelings about me personally,” Nash said. “He probably thought I was a pain in the neck, but he acted respectfully most of the time.”

Nash served as coordinator of the Nashville Freedom Ride. Her job included speaking to the press, recruiting more Riders and gaining national support for the Freedom Riders’ cause. Freedom Rides were trips across several states, usually beginning in northern states and ending in southern states. The Rides protested segregation of interstate transportation, such as Greyhound buses.

“Our office was open 24/7,” Nash said. “Pretty soon we had Freedom Riders coming from all over the country.”

In her speech, Nash connected her involvement in the civil rights movement to the steps necessary for young people today to conduct similar social change through nonviolence.

While a student at Fisk University in Nashville, Tenn., Nash took classes in nonviolent direct action and passive resistance under the tutelage of the Rev. James Lawson, an expert on the subject.

“I was in the right place at the right time,” she said.

In 1960, at the age of 22, Nash found a project in Nashville, Tenn., to test nonviolent direct action in the desegregation of segregated lunch counters. Nash led several of her contemporaries in sit-ins at six eateries with segregated lunch counters, known as the Nashville Sit-ins. They successfully desegregated the counters.

During this time, Nash also co-founded the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, a civil rights activism group whose membership primarily consisted of college students and other young African Americans.

Nash enumerated the lessons that young people who are looking to bring about social change might learn from the civil rights movement.

“People are never the enemy,” Nash said. “You can love and respect the person while fighting their unjust ideas.”

She also warned students not to succumb to oppression.

“Oppression always requires the cooperation of the oppressed,” Nash said. “The day the blacks decided there would not be segregated buses in Montgomery, there were no more segregated buses in Montgomery.”

Nash emphasized that refusing to cooperate with her oppressors was a step she and the Freedom Riders took in achieving integration.

“We changed ourselves into people who could not be segregated. We said, ‘Shoot us, if that’s what you’re going to do, but we will not be segregated,’” she said.

Most of the students who attended the speech kept their rapt attention on Nash for the entire duration of her 90-minute speech. Many approached Nash afterwards for pictures and autographs as well.

“I wanted to hear her story,” sophomore Macy McCollum said. “I haven’t had a lot of firsthand exposure to the civil rights movement. You hear about it in books and movies, but until you hear someone speak about it you don’t get the full grasp of it.”

Joel James, a 2010 Pitt graduate, said he was most impressed by the emphasis Nash and her fellow Freedom Riders put on achieving their objective of equality for future generations.

“They were not just thinking about themselves, but they looked to the future. That requires a level of unselfishness that’s just paramount,” he said.