Former Freedom Rider and SNCC member Diane Nash talks about direct action at GVSU
The GVSU Office of Multicultural Affairs hosted the last of its Black History Month events today on the Allendale campus. Their guest earlier today was Diane Nash, a participant in the 1961 Freedom Riders campaign in the US South. Nash is part of the recently released documentary film entitled Freedom Riders that has been screened in the area over the last month.
Nash was not part of the originally group of Freedom Riders, but she knew that in the event that they needed assistance, she and others would be willing to join in. Ms. Nash spoke about how the original group was beaten and one of the buses was burned. Despite the violence inflicted against the Freedom Riders, Nash and others quickly decided to take action and organize another bus ride.
Nash told the GVSU audience that her boyfriend at the time gave her a ride to Birmingham, Alabama so she could hook up with other activists in the area to keep the campaign alive.
The speaker went on to say that they needed to raise money quickly and asked some of the Civil Rights groups like the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) to provide them with the necessary funds to keep the campaign going. The SCLC initially was reluctant to give the funds out of fear of the violence they might face. However, they were eventually able to get the necessary funds and they set out to take the next steps.
Some of her fellow Freedom Riders contacted the news media, while others contacted the US Justice Department. Diane Nash was given the role of the coordinator of this second leg of the Freedom Riders campaign. Nash said they set up an office in Nashville and offered people training in non-violence and well as engaged in fundraising efforts. Part of the non-violence training was to prepare people for how to deal with going to jail in the event that they were arrested. They had one phone, according to Nash, designated for nothing more than taking calls from those who would be on the buses.
Nash mentioned that the Kennedy Administration tried on numerous occasions to try to get Nash and the other Freedom Riders from continuing the campaign. Nash said that near the end of the campaign she and other members of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) were invited to Washington and asked to shift their focus from direct action to voter registration. Most of the SNCC members refused to stop their direct action approach.
Nash said that the legacy of these efforts of SNCC and the Freedom Riders is relevant for today. However, in order to apply these historical tactics and strategies to today, Nash said, we need to have a better understanding of what actually happened.
The former Freedom Rider then talked about the kind of non-violence campaigns and what this tactical approach truly meant. The Freedom Riders used the Gandhian approach of non-violence, which is known as Satyagraha, or truth force.
This kind of non-violence, according to Nash, was not a form of pacifism that people often assume non-violence looks like. On the contrary, Satyagraha is not just the absence of violence. Non-Violence is an active, participatory activity that both reflects the strength of ones convictions and confronts injustice directly.
One example of how this non-violence was manifested were the lunch-counter campaigns, where people not only were arrested for sitting in White only sections, but people protested those companies with marches and boycotts.
Nash then spent a little bit of time talking about the notion of unconditional love, which is what many of those involved in the Freedom Struggle understood to be what motivated them. The Greek word agape is one of the three Greek words for love and it is the one that is most directly connected to the Gandhian notion of non-violence.
The speaker went on to talk about the campaign to desegregate lunch counters in the south. She gave one example of how after weeks of confronting business owners in one community, one of the owners actually changed his mind and went to the other business owners and asked them to desegregate. Nash said this would not have happened had they seen these owners purely as enemies.
Another point Nash wanted to make was that the only way that oppressors can maintain oppression is with the cooperation of the oppressed. As long as those of us who being oppressed and exploited are willing to put up with the oppression, liberation will not occur.
Nash went on to talk about the difference between a protest and a non-violent campaign. A protest, according to Nash simply lets those in power know you object to whatever it is they are doing. A non-violent campaign has clear steps, goals and objectives that need to be followed in order for the campaign to be successful. She identifies the phases necessary for a successful campaign, with the first being investigation into what the main objective is. Once people can come to an agreement about this main objective then the campaign can move on.
The second phase involves education, where information is disseminated to those who will be potentially involved in the campaign. The third phase is negotiation, where you make contact with your opponent and that while you tell them you don’t hate them you do not approve or accept what it is they are doing.
The fourth phase is demonstrations, such as marches and sit-ins. The Fifth stage is resistance, where you engage in efforts to wear down the opposition, such as boycotts, tax resistance, strikes, work stoppages or setting up parallel organizations. The final step is making sure that you take steps to prevent the problem from reoccurring. This might involve creating a film company, a historic museum or education functions to make sure people know the history so that the injustice does not repeat itself.
Nash then went on to stress that the victories they won were not without sacrifice or risk. Indeed, no struggle really is won that is painless. However, Nash said that not all the work was risky and often people participate in campaigns in a variety of ways. Nash talked about how the famous Black singer Harry Belafonte was asked to be part of the Freedom Rider campaign. Belafonte decided not to participate, but he did support the struggle with money and public endorsement.
Nash ended her talk by pointing out that injustices are rampant today in the US and the world. However, she believes that the non-violent campaigns of the 1960s could work today to bring about change.
Nash said that voting is not enough to bring about change. “Elected officials do not and will not bring about the change that we need.” Can you imagine if we had waited for elected officials to desegregate the south? Those changes never would have come about.
The former Freedom Rider left the audience the clear message that change will never come about if we do not take action. It is true that we need to talk about injustice, we need to educate ourselves, but more importantly we need to take action to bring about change.