Diane Nash

Diane Nash delivering the Slavery Remembrance Day memorial lecture

© Simon Webb

In 2009 the Slavery Remembrance Day memorial lecture was given by the US civil rights activist Diane Nash.


Diane Nash grew up in Chicago, Illinois, where she had only heard of the segregation in the South. She enrolled at Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee in the late 1950s, where for the first time she was denied rights she had always taken for granted. For example, in downtown Nashville African Americans could buy things at Woolworth's and other stores but were not allowed to eat at the lunch counter or get jobs in those same stores.

In 1960 her part in deliberate non-violent actions led to the Nashville sit-ins in response to the segregation taking place in the city's cafeterias. These marked an important shift in the Civil Rights movement; the organisation and mobilisation of students. Hundreds, both Black and White, participated in sit-ins throughout the city. Many of the students were arrested; some were also beaten. On 10 May 1960 Diane's confrontation with Mayor resulted in the desegregation of Nashville's lunch counters and began the desegregation of other public facilities.

Mobilised by this, in the same year she helped to found the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and quit school to lead its direct action wing. In 1961 she led the Freedom Rides from Birmingham, Alabama, to Jackson, Mississippi. Later she contributed to the Right to Vote strategy and was an organiser for the 1963 campaign in Birmingham.

Originally fearful of jail, Diane was arrested dozens of times for her activities and was even sentenced to two years in prison for teaching nonviolent tactics to children. She was released on appeal though was arrested for her civil rights activities many times after.

She worked for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) with Martin Luther King Junior from 1961 to 1965 and in 1963 was appointed to a national committee by President John F Kennedy to help draft the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Diane still lives in Chicago, Illinois. After the 1960s she held several administrative positions in social service agencies and was a housing and real estate consultant. Currently she lectures at colleges and universities and continues to be an activist in civil rights and peace issues.


Diane's achievements have been recognised many times over the years;

  • In 1965 the SCLC gave her its highest accolade, the Rosa Parks Award, to her and fellow activist James Bevel.
  • In 2003 she received the Distinguished American Award from the John F Kennedy Library and Foundation. This award is bestowed upon those who have played significant roles in American public affairs and who have contributed to the moral education of the country. Past recipients include Madeleine Albright, Harry Belafonte, former President George Bush, James Farmer and Betty Freidan.
  • In 2004 Diane received the LBJ Award for Leadership in Civil Rights from the Lyndon Baines Johnson Library and Museum.
    Fisk University, Nashville, Tennessee, awarded her an Honorary Doctor of Humane Letters Degree in May 2007.
  • In October 2008 she was awarded the National Freedom Award presented by the National Civil Rights Museum located in Memphis, Tennessee. This award is presented to individuals who have made significant contributions in civil and human rights; previous recipients include Nelson Mandela, President Jimmy Carter, Rosa Parks, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Oprah Winfrey, President Bill Clinton and Sidney Poitier.
  • In 2009 Diane was presented with North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University's Human Rights Medal. It is awarded annually in recognition of individuals who have endeavoured to correct social injustice and have significantly contributed to the betterment of the world.