Apr 19, 2024 - News

Nashville celebrates Diane Nash's civil rights legacy

President Joe Biden presents the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation's highest civilian honor, to Diane Nash, a founding member of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, during a ceremony at the White House.

Diane Nash receiving the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2022. Photo: Tom Williams/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images

On April 19, 1960, Diane Nash led a crowd of thousands on a fateful march to the courthouse steps.

When they arrived, Nash confronted then-Mayor Ben West and asked him if he believed downtown lunch counters should stop discriminating against Black residents.

  • West agreed that the lunch counters should be desegregated. The next month, they began serving Black customers.

Why it matters: Many saw the exchange, which took place hours after civil rights attorney and then-Councilmember Z. Alexander Looby's house was bombed, as a turning point in the fight to desegregate the downtown lunch counters.

  • It was a pivotal early victory for the Civil Rights Movement.
  • "We were really striding toward freedom," Nash said at the time. "It was a wonderful feeling."

The latest: On Saturday, 64 years after that showdown, the city is honoring Nash for her role in reshaping Nashville and the nation.

  • A day of celebration is planned as the city dedicates the plaza outside the Historic Metro Courthouse, which was renamed in Nash's honor.
  • Nash is expected to attend.

What they're saying: "It's historic," Metro Councilmember Zulfat Suara, who helped organize the event, tells Axios.

  • "Even for me to say I met the Diane Nash — the woman at the forefront of the Civil Rights Movement, the woman who challenged the mayor face-to-face, and that question she raised led to desegregation — is an honor."

Flashback: Nash came to Nashville in 1959 to study at Fisk University. She worked alongside other luminaries in the movement, including the late U.S. Rep. John Lewis, and learned how to harness the power of nonviolent protests.

  • Nash was a Freedom Rider and founding member of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, whose members overcame violent resistance in their push for an end to racist policies across the Jim Crow South.

The big picture: Martin Luther King Jr. called Nash the "driving spirit in the nonviolent assault on segregation at lunch counters."

State of play: In recent years, historians and city leaders have sought to commemorate Nashville's role in the movement.

  • A portion of Fifth Avenue where lunch counter sit-ins occurred was renamed to honor Lewis in 2021.

The bottom line: Advocates hope that residents will be inspired to learn the stories behind the names on plaques and landmarks around the city.

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