Activist Diane Nash visited Fort Hays State University last week and gave students a rare glimpse into the civil rights movement of the 1960s.
"I want you to think about when was the last time you had the opportunity to visit with someone who has altered the course of history of the nation," said Christie Brungardt, director of the Women's Leadership Project at FHSU, to a group of approximately 30 in attendance at the American Association of University Women meeting last Thursday afternoon.
Nash was born in Chicago, but it wasn't until she moved to Tennessee that she experienced segregation. She began her life as an activist at 18 years old.
"More than 50 years ago, at the heart of the struggle was a group of students from Fisk university," said Nicole Walz, a graduate student who introduced Nash to a capacity crowd in Beach/Schmidt Performing Arts Center the same evening. "These students were determined to use Ghandi's nonviolence strategy to bring an end to racial segregation."
In 1960, Nash became the chairperson of the student sit-in movement in Nashville, which aimed to end racial segregation at lunch counters downtown. The sit-ins were coordinated by black college students who were verbally and physically attacked, but refused to retaliate. More than 150 students were arrested, including Nash, who was arrested multiple times as a result of her activism.
In 1961, Nash led the Freedom Rides movement, created to end the segregated bus system. Busses were burned, and more students were injured or killed.
"It was clear to me that if we allowed the Freedom Ride to stop at that point, just after so much violence had been inflicted," Nash said, "the message would have been sent that all you have to do to stop a nonviolent campaign is inflict massive violence."
Nash was informed by government officials the rides were dangerous and everyone would not arrive back alive. She responded by saying each rider knew what he or she was risking, and all last wills and testaments had been signed.
"Oppression always requires the cooperation of the oppressed," she said. "In order for there to be segregated busses, the blacks had to walk to the back of the bus. The day blacks decided there would be no more segregation on the bus, the whites didn't change anything."
Although it was easy to blame the whites for the oppression, Nash said people are never the enemy.
"Unjust political systems, those are the enemies," she said. "Economic systems, those are the enemies. If you recognize people are not the enemy, you can love and respect the people at the same time (you are fighting for the cause)."
Even though Nash currently works as an educator, she still considers herself more of an activist.
"We need to take the future of this country into our own hands," she said. "Can you imagine if we waited for an elected official to desegregate busses and lunch counters? Fifty years later, we probably would still be waiting."
"And I promise you, if citizens don't take violence into their own hands, 50 years from now, what's necessary still won't be done."