Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Tuesday Forgotten American Blogging--Diane Nash

I have long found the popular interpretation of the civil rights movement dismaying. In my survey courses, I routinely ask my students what civil rights leaders they can name. Inevitably, the name the same 3 people: Martin Luther King, Rosa Parks, and Malcolm X. If I ask them what the civil rights movement was about, they usually beat around the bush but it basically comes down to desegregation and voting rights. But this is only part of the story. Moreover, it’s an intentionally selective part of the story. Almost immediately upon the death of King, and certainly by the 1980s, a particular story of the civil rights movement began to be told, not one that challenged the fundamentals of American democracy to the core, but rather one that was fairly timid and included people asking for their civil rights and nothing more.

<> It was at least in part members of the civil rights movement themselves who created this myth—I doubt I need to tell anyone reading this that the many of King’s longtime allies broke with him over his stance against Vietnam and the Poor People’s Campaign, both of which King saw as natural extensions of the civil rights movement and which people like Ralph Abernathy and much of the rest of the SCLC did not. When King died, Abernathy and Coretta Scott King dropped those things pretty quickly and began to spawn two main ideas. First, the movement was about Martin Luther King and his leadership. Second, that the movement succeeded by 1965 and was about voting and desegregation.

This tale leaves out a lot. A ton in fact. For the purpose of this post, I am going to leave the second point behind and focus on the idea that King centered the movement. King of course played a vital role. He was an amazing man. But he was far from the only important person in the movement. Let’s face—if Martin Luther King had never been born, the civil rights movement still would have happened, probably in more or less the same fashion it did anyway. King is important enough that there would have been some differences, but the idea that without King there is no movement is absurd.

<> There are literally thousands of heroes of the civil rights movement and hundreds of important leaders, on both the local and national level. Today, I want to talk about one of the most unjustly forgotten of these, Diane Nash. In the racial structure of the United States, Diane Nash was black. But she was so light-skinned she could pass for white. In Brazil, she would be considered more white than black. But not in the one-drop US. Born in a middle-class Chicago Catholic family, Nash came to public attention during the 1960 sit-in movement. Trained in non-violence by James Lawson, another forgotten American, Nash joined John Lewis and others in leading the Nashville sit-in movement. The sit-in movement revitalized a moribund civil rights movement that could never figure out what to do after Montgomery. King warmly embraced the student movement, at least in these early days, and Nash played a key role in this. Nash helped force Nashville to desegregate its public facilities, a long-sought goal of the civil rights movement.

Nash came to more notoriety during the Freedom Rides. The Freedom Rides is a place where the traditional narrative of the civil rights movement really falls apart. The mainline movement of preachers never would have approved of this. But the hard-core committed youth, both white and black, thought it was time to force change now. Nash was one of these. Nash was not one of the first Freedom Riders who left Washington and were brutally attacked in Alabama in the spring of 1961. But after those attacks, Nash and many of the other sit-in leaders led a second group down to Birmingham to pick up where the wounded left off. The extent of bravery in this action is unbelievable. The first Freedom Riders could guess what would happen to them. But Nash and the second group knew what the consequences would be. The Kennedy administration tried to pressure Nash to lay off, arguing that a)they would be killed and b)it would embarrass the US government, a particularly important point since in 1961, John F. Kennedy had almost no interest in civil rights.

But Nash persisted and a new group of freedom riders went to Birmingham. Diane Nash was not one of them. She was not the head of the Nashville committee in charge of choosing the riders and she was considered too valuable to risk. Instead, John Lewis led a group of 10 to Birmingham, where were promptly arrested by Birmingham sheriff Bull Connor and taken back to the Tennessee line. But more students headed south from Nashville. At this point, the new Freedom Riders were brutally beaten by the mob and police in Birmingham, who also made the mistake of beating the hell of Robert Kennedy’s administrative assistant, John Seigenthaler. Diane Nash kept sending reports around the movement about the news and how the actions of these brave students were shaking the world.

Ultimately, the students hoped that King would join them in the Freedom Rides, but he never dared. It is absurd to call King a coward because of course he wasn't, but he would not put himself on the line in the same way that the students did. Perhaps this was a good thing. His value to the movement was truly great. But for the students literally putting their lives on the line every day, a little more active support from King would have been reassuring. Diane Nash directly asked King whether he would go with him. He waffled, arguing that he wanted to but that his father and the SCLC board did not support it; plus, he was on probation for a traffic violation and he did not want to go back to prison. This despite the fact that virtually everyone involved was on probation for some trumped up charge or another.

Ultimately, Diane Nash faded from the front lines of the movement after her marriage to James Bevel, another of the Nashville student leaders. In fact, she was in prison when she was pregnant. But the disappearance of Nash from the front lines helps show the deep-seated sexism within both the civil rights movement as well as the other major movements of the 1960s. Women were always given secondary roles in the movement, despite their talent. Nash took an early lead, but once married and a mother, her role became much more to raise the children and work behind the scenes while Bevel remained public. Of course, the nation still has massive issues with sexism but it is too bad that these attitudes were so deeply ingrained in the civil rights movement; women like Diane Nash, Ella Baker, Septima Clark, and so many others could have played a much more central role than men allowed them to. Nash openly questioned why men should dominate the movement but nothing really came of it at the time. Nash came back in 1963 to pitch the idea of a nonviolent shutdown of Montgomery after the church bombing there, but King and the SCLC didn’t buy it. Bevel’s behavior became erratic and Nash divorced him, taking their two children.

Nash is still alive and living in Chicago. I haven't found too much on her activities in recent years but she seems to have worked on a lot of fair housing issues up there. Chicago of course is where King received his most violent resistance. But then again, our popular interpretation of the civil rights movement defines racism as a southern problem, conveniently allowing the North and West to ignore its massive racial issues. African-Americans actually receiving fair housing opportunities in the North would probably take as massive a movement as desegregation did in the South.