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Civil rights activist talks about bringing change through nonviolence

Annie Zelm • Feb 9, 2012 at 10:54 AM

After a white supremacist mob bombed a Freedom Rider bus in Anniston, Ala., on Mother’s Day in 1961, the desegregation movement that had been rolling down the interstate highways could have skidded to a halt.

The riders had barely escaped the burning bus. Some were beaten so badly afterward that they were unable to continue.

But Diane Nash was there, urging others to take their place.

“It was critical that the ride continued at that point,” said Nash, a nationally recognized Civil Rights activist who began her journey as a coordinator of the Nashville Student Movement Ride. “If the Freedom Riders had stopped, right after all that violence, we would not have been able to have a Civil Rights movement ... because the message would have been sent that you can stop a nonviolent campaign just by inflicting massive violence.”

Just a year later, five months pregnant with her first child and facing a two-year prison sentence for teaching nonviolent tactics in Jackson, Miss., Nash faced a more personal, pivotal decision.

She could have fled the state and avoided spending time behind bars.

But she knew if she did, she’d never be able to look herself in the eye. The thought of being separated from her child scared her, she said, but not as much as the thought of allowing her children to grow up in an unjust society.

“At that point, I felt ready for anything — ready to die, to feel pain,” she said as she addressed about 120 students and area residents Tuesday at BGSU Firelands. Her tone was both soft-spoken and self-assured. “There was nothing anyone could do to me.”

Nash, who also served jail time with students who were imprisoned after a lunch counter sit-in, talked about how she and thousands of others worked to bring change and how those same principles still apply today.

Some in the audience were old enough to remember the brutal acts that targeted even those who spoke out without using violence.

Others who were students drew parallels to the Occupy movements railing against corporate greed; they asked Nash for her take on it.

Although Nash said she’s encouraged by the fact that the protests are driven by ordinary people and attracting plenty of attention, she emphasized the importance of having clear objectives and taking action in an organized way.

“Future generations are depend-ing on you,” she said. “Freedom is a constant, never-ending struggle. Every individual, every generation, faces its own challenges. And when you’re faced with yours, step up.”

Whether they were young or old, black or white, those who came to hear Nash’s message said they left with gratitude and inspiration for those who came before them.

“I feel like a person of privilege because a person like Diane Nash paved the way for me to attain and achieve many of the things I’ve gained in my life,” said Brigitte Green-Churchwell, 47, a special needs coordinator at BGSU Firelands. “It’s overwhelming to hear her say they were doing this for the future generations.”

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