American Experience; Freedom Riders; Interview with Diane Nash, 1 of 3
[bars and tones] [sustained bars and tones] [Interviewer] So tell me, what you thought when you first heard about the first wave of the Freedom Rides? [Nash] The first I heard of the freedom rides um, 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 towards, into Alabama, Mississippi, and
our objectives in the Nashville movement were in 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. [Interviewer] Why did you think they might need help? [Nash] Well, the south was such a violent place in 1961, that-- [Interviewer] Ok, let's cut. Don't cut, okay? I'll look at you and just try to get my signal.
Hold on. We'll start again. And so my question was why-- [Nash] The south was a very violent place in 1961, and it was entirely probable, more than probable even, that riders, freedom riders, would be attacked when they tried to desegregate waiting rooms and the buses. [Interviewer] One of the things that's really fascinating, and this is kind of a change in subject a little bit, is just I want to talk in a second about what bus travel was like for black people back then, you know, in the south. Because we found an ad for Greyhound, you know, it's a big color ad, and it's all these white people kind of smiling,
getting on the bus, and there's this woman who looks just like Aunt Jemima, 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? [Nash] Travel in the segregated south for black people was inconvenient is is a-- 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-- the side that blacks went into was never as adequate as as the one that whites could use. Very frequently blacks
carried their own food with them to have to confront a minimum of adversity and insult. [Interviewer] One of the things that we don't understand, and a lot of people who weren't around at that time don't understand, it's almost 50 years ago now, is kind of not knowing, you know what I mean, what you might encounter when you travel, and when you were in those situations, just kind of that not knowing. [Nash] 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. There were-- 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. [Interviewer] We'll get back to the Freedom Rides now, I wanted to talk about you know-- so when the Freedom Rides started you know, they were-- they had kind of no press, there were 12, 13 of them,
they had a couple black reporters from the black press but none of the major press was there, but once they burned the bus and had the riot in Birmgingham, this became huge news. Talk about the sense of what happened when this bus was burned in the riot. [Nash] 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 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 in, 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 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 of 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. [Interviewer] Talk a little about-- how did you think, what you feel when you heard that the freedom rides-- the first wave of freedom rides was going to be stopped, the freedom riders were going to be stopped and abandoned? [Nash] 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 you know try again in a few weeks or a few months?" And that was really-- that would've been a really huge mistake
because it's like metal, if the metal is hot you can fashion it and shape it. Once it is cold you 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. [Interviewer] Just a little bit of that over again, just want to make sure-- [Nash] Oh, that's so hard, what did you ask me before? [Interviewer] Something that starts like "when we heard the freedom rides would be stopped, we knew" something like that, okay? [Nash] When we heard-- oh wait, before we do it, you want me to through the whole thing again? [Interviewer] Just a short version, we want something for a beginning, middle, and end.
[Nash] When we heard that the freedom riders had been attacked and beaten in Birmingham 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 had a successful movement the year before and had de-segregated 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. [Interviewer] Why did you feel that you could succeed where the original freedom riders had failed? [Nash] 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. [Interviewer] I think also one of the things that you all were able to do was to 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, that 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 the need for more people, I guess.
Okay. [Nash] During the 1960s blacks in 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 three principles of nonviolence 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, you know 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. [Interviewer] If I could ask you Diane, I just want to get the last piece, that someone's cell phone was making some interference at the end. Even if it's off it might give some data. I'm going to move your purse a little bit. [Nash] Let's see if it's off.
[Interviewer] There were massive amounts of people that you could mobilize and that was the way to go, so if we could get that again. Anyway-- [Nash] We appealed to the moral consciousness of the country and we felt that we could ask numbers of people to join us who-- people who agreed that racial segregation was wrong, and we we recognized that adding numbers to demonstrations could be effective. So the first thing we did was decide to add ourselves to pick up the freedom ride where the original riders had left off. [Interviewer] One of the things that
C.T. Vivian told us about, his version of that happened was that you had a meeting and then I think you said "everybody go think about it and then we'll come back and decide what we're going to do" is that how you remember it? [Nash] Well the first thing I remember is after the-- it was clear that the freedom riders, or 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 he 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 you know "have you sane Catherine Burke, have you seen Jim Bevel, have you seen, you know, various people?" and people would say "yeah, they were in the cafeteria about twenty minutes ago" and we'd go to the cafeteria and followed the trail, other people said "yes, they passed here ten 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. We-- 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-- 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. 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 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. [Interviewer] You also kind of make the decision to go, you make the decision to go right
away. You know, to pull those things together there, so you have this meeting, you made the decision to go and it wasn't like "we're going to go in three days, four days," it's like "we're just going to go." [Nash] What's the question? [Interviewer] The question is, tell me about making the decision to go, and when did you decide to go? [Nash] 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, be off the-- 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 there were several 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 come and to coordinate things plus there was the whole idea
of unanticipated things. That as the ride 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 who 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
- American Experience
- Freedom Riders
- Raw Footage
- Interview with Diane Nash, 1 of 3
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- Diane Nash was a student at Fisk University and a coordinator for the Nashville Freedom Riders.
- American history, African Americans, civil rights, racism, segregation, activism, students
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- Chicago: “American Experience; Freedom Riders; Interview with Diane Nash, 1 of 3,” WGBH, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (WGBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC, accessed August 9, 2020, http://americanarchive.org/catalog/cpb-aacip-15-2f7jq0tn9b.
- MLA: “American Experience; Freedom Riders; Interview with Diane Nash, 1 of 3.” WGBH, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (WGBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC. Web. August 9, 2020. <http://americanarchive.org/catalog/cpb-aacip-15-2f7jq0tn9b>.
- APA: American Experience; Freedom Riders; Interview with Diane Nash, 1 of 3. Boston, MA: WGBH, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (WGBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC. Retrieved from http://americanarchive.org/catalog/cpb-aacip-15-2f7jq0tn9b