Civil rights activist Diane Judith Nash was born on May 15, 1938 in Chicago, Illinois to Leon Nash and Dorothy Bolton Nash. Nash grew up a Roman Catholic and attended parochial and public schools in Chicago. In 1956, she graduated from Hyde Park High School in Chicago, Illinois and began her college career at Howard University in Washington, D.C. before transferring to Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee.
While she was a student in Nashville, Nash witnessed southern racial segregation for the first time in her life. In 1959, she attended nonviolent protest workshops led by Reverend James Lawson who was affiliated with the Nashville Christian Leadership Conference. Later that year, she protested exclusionary racial policies by participating in impromptu sit-ins at Nashville’s downtown lunch counters. Nash was elected chair of the Student Central Committee because of her nonviolent protest philosophy and her reputation from these sit-ins.
By February 13, 1960, the mass sit-ins that began in Greensboro, North Carolina on February 1 had spread to Nashville. Nash organized and led many of the protests which ultimately involved hundreds of black and white area college students. By early April, Nashville mayor Ben West publicly called for the desegregation of Nashville’s lunch counters and organized negotiations between Nash and other student leaders and downtown business interests. Because of those negotiations, on May 10, 1960 Nashville, Tennessee became the first southern city to desegregate lunch counters.
Meanwhile Nash and other students from across the South assembled in Raleigh, North Carolina at the urging of NAACP activist Ella Baker. There they founded the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) in April 1960.
After the Nashville sit-ins, Nash helped coordinate and participated in the 1961 Freedom Rides across the Deep South. Later that year Nash dropped out of college to become a full-time organizer, strategist, and instructor for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) headed by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
Nash married civil rights activist James Bevel in 1961 and moved to Jackson, Mississippi where she began organizing voter registration and school desegregation campaigns for the SCLC. Arrested dozens of times for their civil rights work in Mississippi and Alabama in the early 1960s, Nash and her husband, James Bevel, received the SCLC’s Rosa Parks award from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in 1965. Dr. King cited especially their contributions to the Selma Voting Rights Movement that eventually led to the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
Throughout the 1960s, she remained involved in political and social transformation. In 1966, Nash joined the Vietnam Antiwar Movement. She spent her career working in real estate and education. She now resides in Chicago and continues to speak out for social change. In July 2022, President Joseph R. Biden awarded Nash the Presidential Medal of Freedom.