thumbnail of American Experience; Freedom Riders; Interview with Diane Nash, 3 of 3
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[bars and tones] [Interviewer] When you guys first decided to go, you had this code with Reverend Shuttlesworth. [Nash] Yes when the Nashville group was preparing to take up the freedom ride and was going to go to Birmingham, that was my first encounter with Fred Shuttlesworth. I had heard of him because he was a legend in the civil rights movement. He was in
Birmingham and had been for years, which was such a violent and segregated place and he had been standing up for freedom for a very long time, such a courageous man. I called him on the telephone to let him know that the Nashville group was coming and he prudently warned us, he said "you know about all the violence that happened and it's really dangerous" and I assured him that we did understand that and we wanted to come anyway and so then his attitude was "how can I help?" and he wanted to, well, his plan was
I gotta stop, that wasn't right, it wasn't "how can I help?" Once he was assured that we understood the danger involved and were going to come anyway, his response was that he was going to be supportive. And one of the things that he needed to know was the race and gender of each of the people coming because he planned to have automobiles near the bus station so that he could pick people up and rescue them if necessary. So he couldn't arrange for for example some white girls and some black guys to be picked up in the same car because that would have incited more violence,
so he needed to know how many white girls and how many white guys and how many black girls and black guys were going to be coming and he and I worked out a code. He told me, I wish I could remember the names of some of these kinds of chickens, bantam or red, something, I don't remember, I just can't remember the kinds of chickens, but a particular kind of chicken was a code for a white girl or a black girl or a white guy and a black guy, and so we knew that our telephones were tapped and if I said I was sending so many of this particular kind of chicken and he understood how many, the race and gender the people
coming. [inaudible from interviewer] [Interviewer] So uhm we're back at the church after you get out of the church, uhm talk about that next few days where you have these meetings and you know so the riders now, your group of riders, have been beaten in Montgomery, there was kind of a church siege and so now you have another couple of days where you decided to talk about what to do with the riders. So what happened in the next couple of days? [Nash] Well the freedom ride - [Interviewer] Just start over, sorry, I was talking. [Nash] Oh. The original itinerary for the freedom ride called for the ride to leave Montgomery and to go to Jackson, Mississippi and that's what the freedom riders did. So the ride left--
[Interviewer] I wanted to talk about what happens in the next couple of days that you go to Dr. Harris's house, and there's talk you know about how to continue. I think that you don't want to say that you went from that church-- [Nash] Yes. We did have meetings where we um laid strategy for what would happen next and the original itinerary for the freedom ride called for the riders to go from Montgomery to Jackson, Mississippi and it was decided that that's what the freedom ride would do. I think we already knew that that's what we were going to do because the decision was to pick up the freedom ride and follow the original itinerary. So the freedom riders
got on the bus and headed for Jackson, Mississippi. I drove from Jackson, I didn't drive myself, I was a passenger with Len Holt, who was a black attorney, and he drove from Montgomery to Jackson and I drove, I was a passenger in the car, and we could see that as we got closer to the bus station in Jackson, we could see that there was not going to be any violence because there were so many policemen for several blocks away from the bus station and the rioters were promptly arrested when they got to Jackson. Len Holt was an attorney. [Interviewer] Let's cut. I want to talk about
after the church siege, you know, the series of meetings at Dr. Harris's house, talk about the effort of the thought of persuading Martin Luther King, Jr. to arrive. [Nash] I don't have anything interesting to say about that. It just happened. Not that I'm going to say. [Interviewer] Please. We've got a bunch of other people talking about it. [Nash] Good. [Interviewer] And it's fine if whatever you think about it was but it is something that happened. [Nash] We'll let them talk about it. [Interviewer] You don't want to talk about it. Do you know anything about the deal that was struck to get freedom riders out of Alabama? [Nash] No. Between who and who?
[Interviewer] Alabama. Let's cut. There seemed to be a strategy in Mississippi to you know it seems like that Ross ?inaudible? kinda had this strategy that "we know what to do with the freedom riders, we'll just arrest them and put them in jail" what was the freedom riders' response to Ross Barnett? [Nash] They were in jail and I wasn't so I'm not sure. [Interviewer] And the response was to kind of-- Let's cut for a minute. So tell me about the response of the freedom riders to Ross Barnett's filling up the jail. [Nash] One of the strategies of
nonviolent action is recruiting more and more people to witness and oppose an unjust law. And when the freedom riders were arrested in Jackson one of the things that we needed to do was, and we the organizations involved with the freedom ride, was to continue recruiting people. Uh I did some recruiting in Jackson. It was kind of hard to recruit people in Jackson. There had not been-- I'm wary of saying there had not
been any movement in Mississippi, but there certainly had not been much movement in Mississippi as compared to these sit-ins throughout the south in other states, Tennessee, Georgia, et cetera. There'd been relatively little prior movement in Mississippi. But we did make the initial beginnings of college students at Tougaloo and Jackson State and what have you and there continued to be freedom riders coming from throughout the south that came to-- I mean throughout the country that were arrested and came to Jackson. I don't remember seeing him flying in, but I knew he flew in for that meeting.
[Interviewer] The Nashville movement, so the first wave of the freedom rides is cancelled, they fly out to New Orleans, and why was the group from Nashville ready and willing-- who were you, the Nashville students? [Nash] There were some unique things about the Nashville student movement. In 1960 uh we had carried out demonstrations and a nonviolent campaign to desegregate lunch counters and restaurants in Nashville and we had successfully desegregated six of them. We were the first southern city to desegregate lunch counters there in 1960 and we
became the pace-setter city. Reverend Lawson, James Lawson, was in Nashville, he had been to India and had studied Gandhi's movement firsthand and he had trained a cadre of students as well as older people in the community in the philosophy and strategy of nonviolence. The Nashville Central Committee consisted of representatives from about five different colleges and universities in the Nashville area. And we were a very committed group, we had an excellent education in the strategy and the philosophy and strategy of nonviolence and when the freedom
ride occurred we agreed with their objectives and stood ready to be supportive. We were capable and had had experience, the experience of successfully desegregating lunch counters the year before and decided that we would support the freedom ride. Did that do it? Yeah it was great. just a couple more quick things [Interviewer] What do you think the freedom rides accomplished? [Nash] The freedom rides um called on the moral consciousness of people throughout
the country. It was the first time that we had put out a national call for people to come south and support and participate in the civil rights movement. I think that was certainly one of the important things, it moved the movement to a dimension of a national effort. There were national efforts to support the sit-ins in terms of people in local cities picketing and boycotting the chain stores that were segregating lunch counters, but with the freedom rides it's the first time that we put out a call nationally for people to actually come south and become part of the
project. [Interviewer] Uhm I just want to get an idea of the result of that call, do you know what I mean? Cause you say you put out a call, but i think the real, one of the accomplishments of the Freedom rides-- [Nash] They came. [Interviewer] Yeah, so if you could just tell me that. [Nash] So one of the accomplishments of the freedom ride is that that was the first time we had put out a national-- a call nationwide for people to actually come to the south and participate in the civil rights movement and they came. And there was a contingent of several hundred freedom riders eventually and of course the freedom ride was successful because
interstate bus travel was desegregated. [Interviewer] Okay, let's cut. We're just going to get--
American Experience
Freedom Riders
Raw Footage
Interview with Diane Nash, 3 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, 3 of 3,” WGBH, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (GBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC, accessed June 20, 2024,
MLA: “American Experience; Freedom Riders; Interview with Diane Nash, 3 of 3.” WGBH, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (GBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC. Web. June 20, 2024. <>.
APA: American Experience; Freedom Riders; Interview with Diane Nash, 3 of 3. Boston, MA: WGBH, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (GBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC. Retrieved from