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[bars and tones] [Nash] You want to hear about the justice department [silence] reacted? Or go ahead and ask-- [Interviewer] I do, I actually do, but I wanted to-- Just wanted to follow up really quickly on what you were, so you said that they gave you sealed envelopes as you were going, talk about that, what did people give you as they were going on the bus? [Nash] Some of those people that were about to get on the buses gave me sealed envelopes that were to be mailed in the event of their death. [camera person] I had a little bit of noise on that one. [Interviewer] Okay. Sorry, let me ask you that
again and just say why they thought it was that much risk involved in going there. [Nash] Isn't that pretty clear? [Interviewer] Yeah, but it would just make a nicer sentence. So they-- people gave you, talk about what they gave you as they got on. [Nash] After seeing those pictures of buses burned and seeing the extent of the violence that had been inflicted on the original freedom riders, everyone understood that to take up the freedom ride meant that there was a good possibility of people being seriously injured or even killed and in my capacity as coordinator, several of the people getting on the bus gave me sealed envelopes that I was to mail in the event of their deaths.
[Interviewer] What was the reaction of the justice department? [Nash] Well I remember contacting the justice department and telling them that the Nashville group would be taking up the freedom ride where the original group had left off, and they said "oh you don't understand that is really dangerous, people are going to be killed" and I said "we do understand that and we're going to do it anyway" and it was really frustrating because they kept saying over and over again "you don't understand, people will be killed" and no matter how many times I said "we understand," it's as though they couldn't believe it. And
I understood later on that they, well actually the justice department made a serious effort at trying to dissuade us from going and that was not possible. We had made a decision, we were going. [Interviewer] Okay, let's cut or a second. [Nash] When I came up against the justice department and their attempts to talk us out of it, I have heard people say that I seem to, you know, so strong and determined and I probably did but that strength and determination was the strength and determination of these students who were going on the freedom ride. It came through me but
there was the power of everybody who was going. We were finished with segregation and we were going to pick up that freedom ride. [Interviewer] It seems that that one of the things that I'm amazed at is that you were not, kind of, scared of the Kennedy administration, that there seemed to be a real frustration with the Kennedy administration at that point, at this point we're just going to stop playing. (engine outside) It's still there, the general roar. [Nash] I still hear it.
[Interviewer] Ok. Go ahead. [Nash] The Kennedy-- the Kennedy administration was the federal government. Segregation was wrong. I expected them to act deliberately in terms of enforcing the law and I was frequently frustrated with them because what got to be a mantra was "there's nothing we can do" and I didn't believe that, they're the federal government. They obviously were better then some administrations that
have succeeded them in the last 45 years but and it was still very frustrating to know that it's wrong and it's against the law to segregate and not, well, to have to go through being jailed and the suffering that people in the movement had to endure made me pretty frustrated with them. [Interviewer] It seems that that at this point you know when you're talking on the phone and the freedom rides are kind of starting up, that your attitude is that "we're going to do it with or without you," tell me about that attitude, what was your attitude at that point towards the government? [Nash] We were going to continue the freedom ride, we were not dependent on the government,
it wasn't a matter of "we'll go if you let us go," we were going to go. We hoped that they would be helpful. But we were independent. If the government had been right, we wouldn't have had to have those demonstrations and the freedom ride and do what we were doing. So we knew that we couldn't let the government lead the movement, that was ridiculous. We were going to be rid of segregation. One of the things that I have learned over the years is that you really can't change anyone but yourself and what we did in the south was change ourselves from people who could be segregated into people
who could no longer be segregated. The attitude became "well kill us if that's what you're going to do, but you cannot segregate us any longer" and once you change yourself the world has to fit up against the new you. So they had presented different options to southern white racists; they could no longer segregate us. [Interviewer] One of the things that I just wanted to go back to this this conversation with Siegenthaler one last time, one of the things that Siegenthaler says is that you quietly, as he puts, you quietly gave him a lecture. [Nash] I did. [Interviewer] What was the lecture about? [Nash] I don't remember. I probably did give him several [laughter] [Interviewer]
One of the things that that it seemed that they were trying to protect the justice department in the Kennedy administration was this was this image, they didn't even want certain things getting out especially during the cold war, you know, that they wanted the United States to be looked at one way and this was kind of taking the lid off for the world, talk about what they want, how this all plays out in terms of the cold war. [Nash] After the freedom ride, the Kennedy administration invited several of us to Washington. We met with Robert Kennedy and some officials in the justice department. I think they were trying to get
control of the civil rights movement. The violence and the buses being burned and I'm sure we're not the image that they wanted to go across the country and particularly to be broadcast internationally. It was clear however that the students and the movement had gotten us to the point where we were then and we were determined that we were going to remain independent and not allow the government to get control of the civil rights movement. They made it clear that if we instead of doing the nonviolent direct action kinds of things,
if we want went into voter registration, that large sums of money could be made available to us through foundations and-- we knew that that indicated control again and were smart enough not to allow that. [Interviewer] So Bobby Kennedy tries to basically bribe you. [Nash] I never thought about it that way, we did not have the right to vote but the government had no business telling us what we could and could not have a movement about. And it wasn't a problem as long as we knew what we would and would not do. [Interviewer] So what was the answer to Bobby Kennedy's offer?
[Nash] Well uhm not only was CORE involved uh in the Nashville movement, but the Southern Christian Leadership Conference had also participated in the freedom ride and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. Uhm I was a member of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee known as SNCC ("snick") and as part of my job as coordinator and recruiting more people to go on the ride I had contacted SNCC and a number of SNCC people had joined the ride, SCLC had joined also, and the freedom ride coordinating committee,
consisting of a representative from each of the organizations-- [Interviewer] I think this is too complicated. [Nash] Yeah, I lost track of what you asked me. [Interviewer] I just wanted to get the idea that basically you refused Bobby Kennedy's offer and said that, you know, we're going to continue to have people go on these freedom rides in the south. [Nash] Well some of the people in SNCC in SNCC did take up voter registration, that's why I got into SNCC, because that's really the organization that did it, that went for voter registration. (cut) Just say that we didn't fall prey to the efforts of the government to get control of SNCC. [Interviewer] And you would continue the freedom rides. [Nash] See now, I'm a little--(cut) [Interviewer] So I just wanted to kind of get an ending to that so you told Bobby Kennedy, would you stop the freedom rides or not?
[Nash] We resisted the effort of the federal government to calm down demonstrations and we continued the freedom ride. [Interviewer] Cut. Do you know what was going on at that point with the old Bull Connor? [Nash] Yep. We set up an office in Nashville that functioned twenty four hours a day. We -- anyone anyone from the news media could call at any time and get the latest accurate information about what was happening, as was true for anyone who wanted to call, anyone from the community's
justice department or whatever. I remember we installed a telephone that was for one purpose. We didn't have call waiting then, and we knew that with freedom riders being in jeopardy it was important for them to be able to reach somebody if they tried to call us and no one was allowed to use that telephone, it was just there in case people got in trouble. Bull Connor arrested the freedom riders and one time that that phone was used is we got a call saying that he had taken the freedom riders out of jail in the middle of the night
and had driven them to the Tennessee state line and had deposited them, put them out of the car just on the other side of the Tennessee state state line. That was a very frightening situation because in situations like that law enforcement would frequently set people out of the car and then the Klan, you know, the violent element, would come behind them and attack the people. So the people were set out of the car, they didn't know anyone in that area, they were just there in the middle of the night and we got a telephone call. We
decided, we in Nashville decided to send a car for them and I remember making some phone calls in the middle of the night trying to find someone who had a large car that we could send down there and I was not successful, I remember one gentleman saying that his insurance would not cover his car if he sent it. Uh Leo Lillard was the vice chairman of the Nashville movement that year and he was from Nashville and he got on the phone and found the car in an amazing short time and he drove it to that spot where the young students were. And to this day people talk about how they don't understand how he made that drive that quickly. [Interviewer] Okay, let's cut. The guys want you to get back to Birmingham
so they decided to go back? [Nash] After the students were picked up by Leo, and I remember they were hungry and they had dinner and what have you, I remember asking them what they wanted to do and they decided to go back to Birmingham. [Interviewer] Why? [Nash] Part of the strategy of the nonviolent strategy of the movement is determination to complete a project and so if the movement has stopped at a certain point it's important to go to that point and keep it going so
that's what they were doing, they were taken away from the jail in Birmingham and they decided to go back to that point and continue the freedom ride. (cut) [Interviewer] What you felt when you went and saw your people in the Montgomery hospital? [Nash] When the freedom ride reached Montgomery, people were severely beaten when they got off the bus. I had made a trip to Montgomery to visit Jim Zwerg and William Barbee in the hospital. I remember Jim wore contact lenses and
there was a red spot on the white of his eye where his his contact lens had slipped and he had been beaten in that eye so there was this red bruise in the white of his eye. And Jim uh William Barbee had had a cylindrical object, we're guessing something like a ballpoint pen, jammed into his ear. They had been severely beaten. It was-- people really just need to know the sacrifice that people made in order to make the society better. [Interviewer] I want to try to stay back
there and I think the thing that will best give us that feeling is for you to talk about what it is that you felt-- these people that you knew and loved and worked with, what was the condition like, what did you see in the hospital? Or feel? [Nash] I don't have anything useful to say about that. I mean, you know, you can guess. [Interviewer] The next night there was a mass meeting, do you remember that, in the church? [Nash] Yes, the meeting where we had to stay all night? [Interviewer] Yeah [Interviewer] Tell me about the decision to have a mass meeting. [Nash] Mass meetings were something that
the movement had all the time. That was probably the main way that we involved the community. People would come to the mass meeting in order to find out what was happening, to gain inspiration, to gain instruction. It was a basic way-- a basic institution of the civil rights movement. There was a mass meeting in Montgomery at a church and Martin Luther King was there, Jim Farmer was there, Ralph Abernathy was there, the freedom riders were there. And we proceeded to have the mass meeting. Pretty soon it became known
that there was a mob outside and they were burning cars and there was a good possibility that they would come into the church. Martin King and Jim Farmer were on the telephone with the Kennedys. I remember Jim Farmer told me that he was talking to the Kennedys and the-- I think it might've been Bobby Kennedy-- but he said they were asking for a cooling off period and I said "you know, Nashville is going, there's not going to be a cooling off period." And pretty soon,
well I'd like to say a few things about the people in the church that night. We were definitely aware that there was a hostile angry violent mob outside. Personally I was really concerned that people would panic inside and with the crowded church that could have been very dangerous. However there was no panic, nothing even close to it. We were in that church all night. Fortunately the church had a basement that was the size of the sanctuary upstairs and people could occasionally go down to the basement and there was a little room to move around, but the church was really crowded, the sanctuary was. People took tents leading freedom songs and
talking and just supporting and inspiring everyone in the church, and it was an experience just to see and be part of the spirit of unity that was in that church. We then heard that the federal government had nationalized the Alabama national guard-- federalized the Alabama national guard. And that you know the threat from the mob was subsided. However, we were not allowed to leave the church until dawn the next morning. And when we left it was it was light,
it was dawn, and the well just it was something to see the national guard, even though they were protecting us, it was an experience to see these soldiers with their bayonets fixed. So we get out of the church and got into cars and left. [Interviewer] Talk a little bit about-- we got some film clips of this-- talk a little bit about Martin Luther King and talking to the congregation or all the people there and just saying "be calm, be calm" and the leadership in the church that night. What was the leadership's role in the church that night?
[Nash] I don't think I have anything extra to say. I said everybody took turns singing and talking. [Interviewer] One of the things that people talk about is the fact that once the national guard got there that they actually turned their bayonets on the church and kept everybody inside the church, do you remember that at all? [Nash] I didn't say that, I just knew that we had been ordered to stay inside the church. I never tried to go out until they said we could. [Interviewer] Okay, let's cut for a minute. [Nash] I wasn't eager to go out and face any kind of mob. [Interviewer] No? [Nash, laughing] No.
American Experience
Freedom Riders
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Interview with Diane Nash, 2 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, 2 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, 2 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, 2 of 3. Boston, MA: WGBH, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (GBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC. Retrieved from