Civil Rights icon, Chicago native awarded Medal of Freedom
Diane Nash also later taught in Chicago Public Schools and directed her activism toward fair housing and other issues, including the Vietnam War and the women’s liberation movement.
Chicago native Diane Nash was awarded the nation’s highest civilian honor on Thursday by President Joe Biden in Washington, D.C.
Nash was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom for her work organizing “some of the most important civil rights campaigns of the 20th century,” the White House said in a statement. “Nash worked closely with Martin Luther King Jr., who described her as the ‘driving spirit in the nonviolent assault on segregation at lunch counters.’”
Other recipients on Thursday included gymnast Simone Biles; the late John McCain, the Arizona Republican whom Biden served with in the Senate; and gun-control advocate and former member of Congress Gabby Giffords.
Nash was born in Chicago on May 15, 1938, to Leon and Dorothy Bolton Nash. She graduated in 1956 from Hyde Park High School and enrolled at Howard University in Washington, D.C. After a year, she transferred to Fisk University, majoring in English.
In Nashville, Nash experienced for the first time the social wounds of racism, from segregation to muttered taunts on city streets. Her life quickly changed. She and other Fisk students began attending workshops in civil disobedience conducted by the Rev. James Lawson, the Methodist minister, missionary and activist who had studied satyagraha, the philosophy of non-violent resistance preached and practiced by Mohandas K. Gandhi in his campaign to free India from British rule.
Thus inspired, the students began applying Gandhian tactics, engaging in sit-ins at local lunch counters.
They were successful: On May 10, 1960, Nashville became the first southern city to desegregate its lunch counters.
Nash attended the founding meeting of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), coordinated by Ella Baker at Shaw University in Raleigh over Easter weekend in April 1960. In May, Nash began organizing the Freedom Rides from Birmingham to Jackson, later taking charge of the direct-action wing of SNCC; the second wing was devoted to voter registration.
During the summer of 1961, Nash married activist James Bevel, who had been a classmate at Fisk. They moved to Jackson, Miss., where Nash continued to teach workshops in nonviolence.
In 1962, she became a field staff organizer for the SCLC, and in early 1963, the SCLC, led by the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., the Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth, Bevel and Nash, began organizing the Birmingham Campaign.
They recruited both adults and students for peaceful marches to the mayor’s office to protest the city’s notorious racial divisions. Thousands were arrested. Photographers captured the use of high-pressure water hoses and police dogs by Birmingham police officers.
These images galvanized a nation, leading to the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibited discrimination in hiring and public services across the United States.
Nash and Bevel also worked with King and John Lewis, the civil rights leader and late U.S. representative, on strategy for the Selma to Montgomery marches in 1965 that pressed for the right of Blacks to vote.
Beginning in the late 1960s, Nash taught for Chicago Public Schools and directed her activism toward fair housing and other issues, including the Vietnam War and the women’s liberation movement.
In all, 17 people received the honors Thursday, including Nash.
In a statement, the White House said all “have overcome significant obstacles to achieve impressive accomplishments in the arts and sciences, dedicated their lives to advocating for the most vulnerable among us, and acted with bravery to drive change in their communities, and across the world, while blazing trails for generations to come.”
Biden was awarded a Medal of Freedom by then-President Obama honored during a ceremony shortly before the two left office in January 2017. Biden was honored for his public service.