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[beeping] [beeping] [beeping] [beeping] [beeping] Yep [inaudible] [inaudible]. So Tell me what you thought when you first heard about this--the first wave of Of the Freedom Rides. The first I heard of the Freedom Rides, I was in Nashville. . And Another Young lady from Nashville Movement and I Were Working on the Nashville Newsletter. . And We received something in the mail That said that CORE was going to begin the Freedom Rides in
Washington, and it gave their itinerary that they would come down the East coast and then across into -- and then west into Alabama and Mississippi. And Our objectives in the Nashville movement were In complete complete agreement with CORE's objectives, which was to desegregate interstate bus travel. And after looking at their itinerary, it was clear that they might need help somewhere along the way. So I remember putting a blurb in the Nashville newsletter describing that the Freedom Ride would take place and that we in Nashville would stand by in order to help if they needed our help at some point. Why did you think they might need help? Well, the South was such a violent place in 1961.
There's an airplane. Ok, let's cut. Don't cut. Ok? I'll look at you and just try to get my signal. Ok. Speeding. Now? Yeah, we'll start over. The South was a very violent place in 1961, and it was entirely probable, more than probable, even that Freedom Riders would be attacked when they tried to desegregate waiting rooms and the buses. One of the things that's really fascinating, this is kind of a change in subject a little bit,
one of the things that's really fascinating is, I want to talk a second about what bus travel was like for Black people back then, in the South. Because we found an ad for Greyhound, it's a big color ad, and it's all these white people smiling, getting on the bus, and then there's this woman who looks just like Aunt Jemima, you know, and a Black woman and she's got a basket full of food, getting on the bus. And so, you know, what was it like traveling on the bus for Black people back then? Travel in the segregated South for Black people was -- inconvenient is not an adequate term. It was humiliating. It was difficult. Blacks had to ride at the rear of the bus. There were inferior waiting rooms at the rest stops.
There were, of course, separate waiting rooms, and the side that Blacks went into was never as adequate as the one that whites could use. Very frequently, Blacks carried their own food with them to have to confront a minimum amount of adversity and insult. One of the things that we don't understand and a lot of people who aren't around in that time don't understand, and that's almost 50 years ago now, is that it's kind of not knowing. Do you know what I mean? What you might encounter when you travel and when you're in those situations, just kind of that not knowing.
Not knowing what to expect was certainly a part of traveling throughout the South. Black people just based on the color of our skin were hated and treated with contempt. The very fact that there were separate facilities was to say to Black people and white people that Blacks were so subhuman and so inferior, that we could not even use public facilities that the general public used, and that was so demeaning and so humiliating. Well, the Supreme Court, even at one point, said that there was no right that a Black person had that white people had to respect, and white people throughout the South acted like that. So you never knew quite what would have happened by the time you got where you were
going. I wanted to talk -- get back to the Freedom Rides now. I wanted to talk about -- so when the Freedom Ride started, you know, they had kind of no press, there were 12, 13 of them, they had a couple of Black reporters from Black press, but none of the major press was there, but once they burnt the bus and had the riot in Birmingham, this became huge news. So talk about the sense of what happened when this bus was burnt and the riot. We had a member of the Nashville movement that started with the initial Freedom Ride in Washington. John Lewis was part of the Central Committee in Nashville, and that was the group that gave guidance to the sit-in movement.
And we had been together for a year and had successfully desegregated lunch counters. So the Nashville movement since one of our own was taking part in the Freedom Ride had a stake, a personal stake, in how the Freedom Ride went. I heard about the buses being burned in Anniston and attacked in Birmingham. And I realized that -- let me do that again. When the Freedom Riders were beaten in Birmingham and the bus was burned and the riders
attacked in Anniston, I guess it felt like an attack on us as well as on them. There was a strong bond of camaraderie between Freedom Fighters then. We understood clearly the courage that it took to face those kinds of mobs, and we had a principle of not leaving people isolated, but joining them when there was an attack or adversity. And I think that that occurred to us. Talk a little bit about, what did you think, what did you feel when you heard that the
Freedom Rides, the first wave Freedom Rides was going to be stopped. The Freedom Rides were going to be stopped in Alabama. Well through the news media, we heard that the Freedom Riders had been beaten so severely. and so frequently actually, that it was just physically impossible for them to continue. And we knew that that was true. However, 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, the message would have been sent that all you have to do to stop a nonviolent campaign is inflict massive violence and that would end it.
Well, had that message been sent, we would not have been able to have a movement about any issue, about restaurants and lunch counters, about other public facilities, about voting or about anything else. We would not have had the opportunity to have a movement about anything without huge numbers of people being killed or injured because the opposition would have been determined to inflict massive violence and stop the campaign. So it was important that the Freedom Ride continue. Some people said, "Well why not let things settle and cool off and maybe try again in a few weeks or a few months?"
And that was really, that would have been really a huge mistake because it's like metal. If metal is hot, you can fashion it and shape it. Once it's cold, you can't shape it anymore. So the situation was similar to that, we had to move at a critical time, and we had to make certain that the Freedom Ride continued, especially since there had been a great deal of violence. So just a little bit of that over again, just want to make sure. Oh, that's so hard. What did you start asking me before? So just some of the kind of sets that starts with, when we heard the Freedom Rides would be stopped, we knew something like that.
When we heard, wait before we do it, you want me to go through that whole thing again? You can make it, to give it the short version because we can tack that on to the beginning I just want you to give us a beginning, middle, and end. When we heard that the Freedom Riders had been attacked and beaten in Birmingham and the buses and the bus burned in Anniston, and we heard that the original Freedom Riders would be leaving, we knew that it was true, that they had been beaten so frequently and so severely that it was just physically impossible for them to continue. We knew that, well, Nashville was in a position to pick up the Freedom Ride. We had a successful movement the year before and had desegregated lunch counters.
We had a group, a very cohesive, effective group of students who were well-educated in the philosophy of nonviolence and actually had some experience in using it. The Nashville group was very committed to desegregation, and we had been watching the progress of the Freedom Ride, had anticipated that at some point they might need help, and we were standing by in order to provide the help that we could. Why did you feel that you could succeed where the original Freedom Riders had failed? The original Freedom Riders did not fail. They, I think, accomplished a very valuable and remarkable feat.
They simply had been beaten so severely and so frequently, there is a limit to what a human being can endure. The group in Nashville, we were fresh troops, and so we felt like we could enter at that point and continue the Freedom Ride. I think also one of the things that you all were able to do, from the beginning you understood that you needed more people, that you didn't start out with 12 or 13. So talk about that piece of it, you understood that it was going to take more than 12 or 13
because if you had sent another 12, you could have been beaten back, so with that, the need for more people I guess. During the 1960s, Blacks and the South did not have a lot of money. We did not have a great deal of political power, in fact in many areas of the South we couldn't even vote. We did have numbers, and we did have commitment. One of the principles of non-violence is that with large numbers of people witnessing against an injustice and not cooperating with the injustice that we could be successful
at ending that injustice. Another principle was that we could wear the opposition down and keep coming in large numbers and we understood that very well. We had put it into practice before, so we applied it to the Freedom Ride. If I could, I just want to get the last piece... I don't know if someone's cell phone is making a little interference at the end of that. Mine is completely off. Do you have a cell phone on you? Yeah, it's off. Ma'am, do you have a cell phone one you? It's in my purse. I'm going to move your purse away a little bit. Let's see if it's off. It might be the fact that there were massive amounts of people that you could mobilize and that was the way to go, so we could get that again.
We appealed to the moral consciousness of the country, and we felt that we could ask numbers of people to join us, people who agreed that racial segregation was wrong. We recognized that adding numbers to demonstrations could be effective. The first thing we did was we decided to add ourselves to pick up the Freedom Ride where the original Riders had left off. One of the things that C.T. Vivian talks about was that you had a meeting, and then I think you said: "Everyone go and think about it, and then we'll come back and we'll decide what we want to do." Is that how you remember it? Well the first thing I remember after
It was clear that the Freedom Riders, the original Freedom Riders, were going to have to leave the project and understanding that the Freedom Ride just had to continue. We needed to have a meeting of the Central Committee, which was the Leadership Committee in Nashville, the Student Leadership Committee, and the young man that I was dating at the time had a car, and was also involved in the movement, and I remember going around campus, finding people who were on the Central Committee, to the extent of saying, have you seen Catherine Burke, have you seen Jim Bevel, have you seen various people, and people
would say, "Yeah, they were in the cafeteria about 20 minutes ago." And we'd go to the cafeteria and followed the trail. Other people said, "Yes, they passed here 10 minutes ago, and they went that way." And so we would go there and keep asking people and finding the people on the Committee in order to get a meeting together. We did have a meeting. The Nashville group of students did decide that it was critical, that the Freedom Ride continue, and we decided that we would go. Many, a number of the people from the Central Committee decided that we ourselves would go. The next thing we needed was money.
We needed to be able to buy tickets, bus tickets. We needed for the people who were going to have enough money so that they'd be able to buy lunch or whatever. It was a minimum amount of money, but for the people who were going, it was money that we needed. The Nashville group, the year before, had a very close cooperation, well, not just the year before, but it was continued, but the student group and the Nashville Christian Leadership Conference, the local group in Nashville, we called them the adults. We had a very close working relationship, and we had asked the adults to collect and keep track of the money because we, the students, were far too busy sitting in and going
to jail and demonstrating and what have you. So at the mass meetings, and I guess that was probably the main source of collecting money at the time, we had to have the adults approve giving us money -- allocating money for this purpose, and I can remember being in a meeting hours into the night, one night, trying to persuade the NCLC members to write a check giving us the money we needed to continue the Freedom Ride. Their big hesitation was that they were afraid for us. They had seen the pictures of the bus burned and the victims of the violence, and they
were afraid that we would be killed or seriously injured, and they felt a responsibility. So it was really hard to convince them to make the money available for us to continue. Let's cut for a second. The decision to go, and you also kind of make the decision to go, and you make the decision to go right away. It's to pull those things together there. So you have this meeting, tell me about the fact that you made the decision to go, and it wasn't like we're going to go, you know, in three days or four days, it's like we're just going to go. Mm-hmm. Go ahead. What's the question? The question is, tell me about making the decision to go, when did you decide to go? We had a meeting of the Student Central Committee in Nashville and agreed that it was
critical that the Freedom Ride not stop, and that it be continued immediately, and we decided that we would go immediately. One of the decisions that was made was that we recognized that we needed one person to be out, not be on the Freedom Ride, and not be arrested. It needed to be one of us who were planning to go. We recognized that sometimes people could take over a project, and if it wasn't one of us who planned to go, sometimes those people would have their own agendas, and we didn't
want that to happen. We needed coordination. By then, there were several communities involved. There was Birmingham and Nashville, and others, and there were several organizations involved, because now there would be CORE, and the Nashville movement, we intended to involve more and more people, and so someone had to be recruiting, steadily recruiting, more people to go on the Freedom Ride. We needed someone to train people who were planning to go on the Freedom Ride. We needed them to be trained in nonviolence, and what to do to best protect themselves
and other Riders if they were attacked. We thought it would not be right to send people with absolutely no orientation, who we knew would probably be arrested, that there are things that you can do to prepare to be in jail, and to avoid becoming demoralized and to make the jail sentence a little more livable. We needed coordination between the Justice Department and the Freedom Riders. We wanted them informed of what we were doing, and then the news media, it was important
for the media to be able to obtain accurate information. So there clearly was a need for someone who would not be on the Freedom Ride on the bus and in jail to coordinate things, plus there was the whole idea of unanticipated things that as the ride progresses-progressed, we didn't know what would happen, and so as things came up that needed to be done, there needed to be someone to do that. So the people who were going on the Freedom Ride from Nashville elected me to be the coordinator, and that was a really heavy responsibility, because the lives and safety of people whom I loved and cared about deeply, who were some of my closest friends, depended on my doing
a good job at that. There was also the stress, I guess is a good word, of the others going into obvious danger, and as coordinator, I would not be on the bus and be facing that danger, but I accepted the job. In that capacity as coordinator, some of the students who were getting on the bus gave me sealed envelopes to be mailed in the event of their death. So I guess all these years I have felt just extremely grateful that I can claim as friends some just remarkable, very courageous people.
American Experience
Freedom Riders
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Interview with Diane Nash, 1 of 3
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WGBH (Boston, Massachusetts)
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Episode Description
Diane Nash was a student at Fisk University and a coordinator for the Nashville Freedom Riders.
Race and Ethnicity
American history, African Americans, civil rights, racism, segregation, activism, students
(c) 2011-2017 WGBH Educational Foundation
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Chicago: “American Experience; Freedom Riders; Interview with Diane Nash, 1 of 3,” WGBH, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (GBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC, accessed May 22, 2024,
MLA: “American Experience; Freedom Riders; Interview with Diane Nash, 1 of 3.” WGBH, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (GBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC. Web. May 22, 2024. <>.
APA: American Experience; Freedom Riders; Interview with Diane Nash, 1 of 3. Boston, MA: WGBH, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (GBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC. Retrieved from