Diane Nash speaks about the importance of nonviolent civil resistance

By Rylee Carrillo-Wagner ’19

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On Monday, Feb. 27, Diane Nash spoke to a packed Chapel audience about her work in nonviolent campaigns. The event was moderated by Professor Gbemende Johnson, an assistant professor of Hamilton’s government department. 

Nash was born in Chicago, but she went to Howard University in Washington, D.C. and later transferred to Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee because she wanted to observe and engage with the challenging issues of that time. In Nashville, as she experienced the full weight of the Jim Crow laws, she quickly became involved in student activism. In 1959, Nash joined the nonviolent civil rights movement and, by 1960, was the chairperson of the student sit-in movement in Nashville, one the first movements to produce a successful campaign to integrate lunch counters. That spring, Nash co-founded the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), a group which would remain an independent force of young adults committed to nonviolent protest. In 1961, Nash took over organizing the Freedom Rides and was arrested many times, most notably in Rock Hill, South Carolina. After being arrested for protesting segregation, Nash and 10 of her fellow students refused the chance to accept bail, remaining in prison for 30 days and bringing attention to the “jail, no bail” tactic that was gaining impact and being used by many other civil rights activists. 

In 1964, Diane Nash was appointed by then-president John F. Kennedy to the national committee that promoted the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, but she never stopped fighting. In 1965, Nash continued working with James Bevel and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference to implement the Selma to Montgomery marches. Later, Nash became an instructor in nonviolent strategies for the peace movement working to end the Vietnam War.

Nash has won many awards for her vital role as a nonviolent leader in the Civil Rights movement, including the War Resisters’ League Peace Award, the Distinguished American Award, the LBJ Award for Leadership in Civil Rights and an honorary doctorate of human letters from Fisk University, which she left in order to devote herself to the movement.

During Monday’s moderated discussion, Nash outlined the six phases that she and SNCC followed to create a successful nonviolent campaign, a system that she suggested can and should be applied to any fight for freedom and equality. The first phase is investigation. During this phase, an objective should be concretely defined and written, so as to allow anyone involved to decide whether or not they truly align with the movement’s goals and to make sure that the goals remain clear. During this phase, the group should also gather information, understand who really has the power, find out what systems are in place that cause oppression and learn how the oppressed participate in their own oppression. Nash treaded lightly when presenting this last task, as it can initially trigger many people. She explained that “a key nonviolent principle is that oppression always requires participation in an oppressive system…. When the oppressed remove their participation, the system falls.” 

The second phase is education, which includes teaching others what the group discovered during their investigative phase. Phase three is negotiation. During this phase, Nash emphasized, it is critical that their opponents know that the group loves and respects them but that they will not tolerate what they are doing. At this point, the group shares their objectives and future plans with their opponent. After this, they move into the fourth phase: demonstration. This phase raises awareness to larger audiences and “focuses the eye of the community on the issue.” 

Then comes the fifth phase of resistance, in which the oppressed remove their participation. This can occur by refusing to pay taxes, participate as consumers in a market or abide by an unjust social rule, such as segregated lunch counters. As stated before, when the oppressed remove their participation, the system falls. Once this resistance occurs, the system has two options: to change or to fail and collapse. Once change occurs, or the system is dismantled, phase six works to prevent the same problem from recurring. This can come in the form of a museum, a movie or many other things that ensure people remember the past and the lessons learned. 

Johnson then asked Nash why she thought nonviolence was the only option. Nash responded, “in the sixties, we did not know if nonviolence worked, but now we know it does.” She went on to explain that if one wants to bring about a better world, one cannot do so through killing; furthermore, violent retaliation results in a world full of hatred. She also pointed out that “no nation with a military and taxing abilities has ever been able to defeat the US government and military.” Her commentary runs along the same vein as Audre Lorde’s thesis, which is that “the Master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.” Nash extrapolated from the thesis to argue that if one tries to combat an oppressive, more powerful force using violence, one will fail. Moreover, by remaining nonviolent, one can “occupy the moral high ground.” If violence occurs, then the shift moves away from the issue at hand and recenters on the violence, which also provides justification for violent responses from oppressors and results in a loss of support. Nash also stated that it is “important that your opponent not be afraid of you. If they know you’re not going to hurt them it furthers your movement faster.” Nash used examples from the Montgomery bus boycott and the struggle to end apartheid in South Africa to support her argument.

Nonviolence is no easier than violence. Nash discussed the great violence she and her cohorts faced, and how they used their own bodies to step in between the attacker and the attacked in order to spread out the violence so that one person was not left absorbing all of the violence alone. She said, “To be with group of people that would put their own self, their body, between you and harm was a truly amazing experience.” 

This idea centers back to the emphasis on love that she placed throughout her speech. She felt that all acts for creating a better world stem from a place of love. During her own training, leaders would ask members to write their own definitions of love and discuss them. Then when moving forward with any future actions the group would ask themselves, “Is this the loving thing to do?” This love extends not only to your constituents and allies but also to your opponents, Nash confirmed.

In terms of today’s movements, Nash raised concern that many are only doing what they saw done in the past: demonstrating. However, that is only about 20 percent of the work, since it is only one phase of a successful nonviolent campaign. Nash explained that when you demonstrate, you are voicing that you do not like that something is happening, but that will not cause those in power to stop. More action is required to create change.

Instead, Nash suggested that “we as citizens should think of ourselves as rulers of the nation… if you don’t know what you want somebody has to fill that vacuum.” She called for a difference in attitude, wherein citizens actively decide how they want this nation to look, and to make that happen. She said, “In order for that to happen, citizens must take the future of this nation into their own hands… it’s our responsibility.” She ended the discussion with a call to action: “I’m talking about you. Not the person sitting next to you. Not a government official. You. You have a responsibility to develop change… what’s really critical is what you do, and what I do.”

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