For Young Activists, A Lesson from Nashville

By Emily Dong.

When I was a student, I was involved in multiple ebbs and flows of social justice activism. From protesting a University healthcare fee and heckling Trustees, to shutting down campus roads on May Day and demanding no border wall — all took different forms and fought for different things, but all ended the same way: with limited results, and the students themselves disbanding as quickly as they came together for the protest. 

We are in times demanding fundamental change, increased consciousness, and activism. Young people can feel they should do something, which is partially why we see a rise in social justice organizations on college campuses, even if many treat it more like an after school hobby than a lifelong commitment. Being a young activist and being a “radical” are also particularly trendy today. Teen Vogue even has weekly columnists dedicated to Marxist analysis, Q&As about labor revolution, and the basics of anti-capitalism.

But this vein of activism among young people and these student groups cannot go very far. Despite the popularity of recent student activism around climate change, institutional divestment from fossil fuel corporations, and the Green New Deal, activism today is critically different from the last time students were at the forefront of a great struggle for humanity, the Nashville Student Movement of the late 1950s and ‘60s. Its leader was Diane Nash, a courageous young woman who exemplified the humility, moral determination, and deep love that drove the Nashville Student Movement. Unlike the common traps of celebrity and ego in today’s activism, Nash never sought recognition for herself and always centered the movement, no matter how much top magazines clamored to put her on their covers. 

Leading nonviolent sit-ins, interstate freedom rides, and mass marches as a crucial part of the Black Freedom Struggle, Nash and the other Nashville students were not just student leaders but key, steadfast leaders for all people in the Civil Rights Movement. Martin Luther King, Jr. said in 1960, “I came to Nashville not to bring inspiration, but to gain inspiration from the great movement that has taken place in this community.”

Many activists and academics will point to the anti-Vietnam War student protests of the ‘60s as inspiration for today, and many young white leftists are looking to recreate them right now. But these Northern protests rose and fell rapidly and were very different from the student movement in Nashville. Even after Nash and other students like Bernard Lafayette, John Lewis, and James Bevel graduated from or dropped out of their colleges, the movement lived inside of them and kept them moving forward. They moved to the Deep South to continue the struggle for freedom and justice in this country. Nash even refused to flee from Mississippi when faced with a two-year jail sentence for educating young people in nonviolence, instead choosing to serve her sentence while heavily pregnant so she could stay in the South and continue her work for freedom.

Nashville’s leadership moved hundreds of students to drop out of college, leave the safety of the North, and go South to the front lines of the Black Freedom Struggle, where they knew they’d face danger they had never had to feel before. Three of these young freedom workers were murdered by white supremacists in Mississippi: James Chaney was a young, local Black man, and Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner were Northern whites. James and Andrew were younger than me, the ages of a freshman and junior in college. Michael, who went to Cornell like me, died at my age: 24 years old. This preparedness to choose struggle — and be willing to die — for freedom and justice is something I can’t imagine young people understanding or committing to today. 

But it’s not enough to look at Nashville and say what happened there was special. We need to know why the student movement there was special. What kind of movement and practice moves young people, who are just at the beginning of their lives, to be so courageous? To choose moral responsibility, even in the face of great danger and sacrifice?

These are the questions to think very seriously about today. The young people around me are searching for more — for lives filled with dignity, meaning, and purpose. They are disillusioned, depressed, and pessimistic, left looking for hope in leaders stuck in a dying Western world. They’re untrained in and incapable of imagining a new world, but these are the very young people who will guide the future of our country. So what will it take to raise our young people into new human beings who are ready to create and fit in a better, beautiful world? We have to look to leaders like Nash and understand what made Nashville special, so we can understand the limitations of student activism today and what’s necessary for raising the young people of tomorrow.

Ideas, and which ideas

In all the interviews in which she’s asked the question of how exactly she was able to become a courageous Civil Rights Movement leader with the conviction to do something about segregation at such a young age, Diane Nash points to her education in nonviolence. No matter how much interviewers try to get her to talk about herself and her individual special qualities, Nash emphasizes the life-changing significance of Rev. James Lawson’s workshops in Nashville, where for years he shared the philosophy, practice, and power of nonviolence with students and community members looking to do something about segregation:

“I am a lucky woman. I was in the right place at the right time. I received an excellent education in nonviolence, and had the opportunity to practice it with Lawson and others until I learned how.” 

Education isn’t confined to what happens in a physical classroom. Instead, Nash talks about how important it is for a group of people to first develop knowledge of what is going on in the world and how we have ended up with injustices like segregation before the group does anything. And only then, we can understand how to truthfully change the world around us.

Beyond the importance of ideas is which ideas. Where is a group or movement getting their clarity in ideas and morals from? Whereas many student activists today don’t read history or first understand the very world they believe they’re changing, for years the Nashville students studied Thoreau, Chinese thinkers like Mo Ti and Lao-tzu, and, most importantly, the Indian Anticolonial Movement and Mahatma Gandhi’s principles of nonviolence. Significantly, the Nashville students looked to Martin Luther King Jr. and the Black communities around them in the South for ideological and moral authority. 

Nash described how at first she was extremely skeptical of nonviolence and convinced “blood had to flow in the street.” But she kept attending Lawson’s workshops, because she would go downtown every day and see how Black working men would go buy lunch and be unable to eat in the restaurant they just gave money to. There would be lines of Black men squatting on the sidewalk, eating their takeout lunches in front of the restaurants before going back to work. She saw how unjust and dehumanizing segregation was, and its impact on herself and the people who make up the daily fabric of life around her. This made her keep going to Lawson’s workshops — the only place talking about how to end it. Understanding reality meant seeing the world’s history, injustices, and beauty through the ordinary people around you. Guided by King and Gandhi who always looked to the people, Nash emphasized ideological clarity—discovering the truth—as growing consciously closer to the people rather than farther:

“You know, in Nashville, we were fortunate because Reverend James Lawson, who had been to India and studied Gandhi’s movement firsthand, was there and educated us in nonviolence. And we really took it seriously, trying to create a Beloved Community. One of the things that we frequently did when we got ready to have a demonstration or to do something was to say — and really mean — is this the loving thing to do? So I think the group in Nashville was very melded together and felt very committed to each other and very strong. And so I reflected the group.”

The Nashville students showed courage in the face of violent white supremacy during their movement because they distinctly knew that what they were doing was morally right. They knew what they were doing was right because they grappled with ideas and synthesized true principles by which to act together. Most importantly, the Nashville students and the Black Freedom Movement as a whole were bound together and moved by a positive vision for the future — the “Beloved Community” that King talked about, envisioning an encompassing brotherhood so driven by love that people grow into higher human beings and commit to the moral responsibility of making it a reality.

Social justice groups on campuses today often protest in reaction to wrongs they feel their University is doing, whether it be investing in fossil fuels or partnering with unethical apparel companies. Their demand is for the administration to cut ties with certain corporations, but they have no positive vision for the future that transforms the very nature of the University, the students attending it, or how we view education itself. And so whether they have their demands met or not, these student groups often dissolve with time, and the students themselves remain relatively unchanged. By developing ideological and moral clarity, the Nashville students understood what the world was demanding of them and were ready to take responsibility for doing whatever is necessary to make our country and world a Beloved Community.

Discipline

Working through ideas — and taking that growing of consciousness and training seriously — was only one part of what Nash identified as six phases of the Nashville Student Movement’s typical “agapic energy campaign.” The Nashville students understood agape, a relentless and overwhelming love for all of humanity, as the driving force of their actions and lives, and were guided by how King describes it:

“Agape is an overflowing love which seeks nothing in return. […] Jesus reminds us that love is greater than liking. Love is understanding, creative, redemptive goodwill toward all men. And I think this is where we are, as a people, in our struggle for racial justice. We can’t ever give up. We must work passionately and unrelentingly for first-class citizenship. We must never let up in our determination to remove every vestige of segregation and discrimination from our nation, but we shall not in the process relinquish our privilege to love.”

Calling their agapic energy campaigns a process, Nash explained how the Nashville students went beyond protest and carefully followed these six steps: investigation, education, negotiation, demonstration, resistance, and, finally, steps to ensure the problem does not recur. In investigation, they set a goal and wrote it down. Nash said you’ll find most people will not agree on this goal, and this is an opportunity to discuss why. You must clarify how the oppressed are participating in their own oppression so they can withdraw that participation. Many student activists I’ve been in the room with are not on the same page on why they’re doing something and are instead merely united by a desire to protest or act. The lack of a shared goal leads student activist groups to the common doom of falling apart quickly. 

The next step of educating other students and community members was important, because the Nashville students didn’t want any blind followers. The point of the movement was to increase the ideological clarity of what all people were really up against, what they were fighting for, and how to fight for it. And the significant hope was for more and more people through this process to transform themselves and make the moral choice — not to simply increase the number of bodies showing up to one demonstration.

This level of discipline is foreign among activists and young people today who are interested in social justice. And it’s also very different from the height of anti-Vietnam student protests, filled with a culture of drugs, sex, hippies, and unchecked, individual, indulgent expression, a legacy which student activism takes pointers from today. What’s important about this level of discipline isn’t just that the Nashville students were organized, but that they carefully followed their six step process and took each step seriously because of their belief in agape. They would do the hard, deliberate work of building a Beloved Community because they knew they wanted to reach it.

With social justice today focused on the performance of protests and the gratification of in-the-moment attention, many young activists around me would identify the most important steps of this process as demonstration and resistance — when the students would begin their hardcore boycotts, sit-ins, and nonpayment of taxes. But Nash considered negotiation the most valuable. She described how important it is to talk to your opponent and learn that they might have real problems. For example, some Nashville businessmen told the students they were afraid of a boycott from white patrons and losing their livelihoods. The Nashville students recruited dignified-looking old, white ladies from churches to sit at the integrated lunch counters for three weeks and encourage business from whites to keep flowing.

Negotiation was a hardcore psychological, moral, and spiritual challenge that required you to want to understand your opponent. You recognize people as human beings and have deep faith in their capacity to change and grow — just like yourself. Young activists today are quick to “cancel” and ostracize someone who says something “problematic,” all without asking why someone acts the way they do and without seeking changes in the conditions that make people do wrong. In the negotiation stage of an agapic energy campaign, you exemplify a love that has the power to transform rather than resort to domination like young Americans are taught.

The Nashville students took nonviolent noncooperation seriously and were ready to transform society. They were so prepared to face harm and sacrifice their own safety for that of their comrades, that they practiced role-playing the violence they would inevitably receive from white people when doing lunch counter sit-ins. Their discipline in their shared commitment to a Beloved Community and their nonviolent practice created unbreakable bonds in the student group itself, and it thus provided a powerful moral leadership for other young people in the country:

“And part of our nonviolent training was that if one person is getting severely beaten, a way that you can try to protect them is putting your body between them and harm, especially if there’s more than one person but even if it’s just one person. It was an extremely unique experience to be a part of about 30 people that you loved enough to put your body between them and harm. And to have every confidence that they would put their body in between your body and harm. And that was the relationship that existed in Nashville, in the central committee. And these were the people giving guidance to the sit in movement there.”

Through their disciplined practice, the Nashville students strove to be human beings with undeniable dignity, people who took creating a Beloved Community so seriously that they imbibed the values they preached through every action. Nash emphasizes how it important it was for the young people at marches and protests to dress up with dignity:

“We were very organized. One of the things that we made it a point of—was that whenever there was a demonstration, we were to be overly dressed. The men generally wore suits and ties and the women, well, we looked like we were dressing up for Sunday.”

This was significant not just in how it transformed the young people themselves into unshakeable men and women but in how it built trust with the Black community and moved others to join their movement. Rather than striving to look rebellious and at the fringes of society, the Nashville students took it very seriously to move closer and closer to the heart of the people and build a movement ready to act as the stable foundation of a new type of world and a new type of human being.

Moral transformation and God

Throughout her interviews, Nash emphasizes how important and special it was that every person in the Nashville Student Movement, no matter how incapable of courage and change they first saw themselves, morally transformed — including herself:

“And, after that workshop, I told the other people there, I said, you know, I’m really not going to demonstrate with you. I was afraid of going to jail. I said, I’ll do telephone work and I’ll type and, what have you, but I’m really afraid to go to jail. And I meant it. And, like I said earlier, the movement had a way of reaching inside you. When the time came to go to jail, I was far too busy to be afraid.”

Through the process of grappling with ideas to know what they’re dealing with and what kind of human beings they will have to become for a better world, every person had no choice but to rise to higher standards of human existence. This beautiful self-transformation into bigger people capable of immense courage and love in the face of hate only happened because the Nashville students made the moral choice. This choice to commit their entire lives to the struggle for humanity and be willing to die for it is a spirit missing in the usual college campus activism. When you make that moral choice, your life becomes more than your own and becomes deeply defined by what’s necessary to birth a new world. 

The Nashville students knew they were part of a larger freedom movement led by King happening at the heart of the country: the South. King’s leadership did not just shape the ideas of nonviolence that Rev. Lawson and the students grappled with — King imbibed a relentless moral responsibility and unchallengeable love for humanity in his being and leadership that raised everyone in the movement. On King’s significance, Nash notes:

“…he was steadfast. He didn’t waver, he kept his hand on the freedom plow, to borrow a phrase from the gospel. And he didn’t want to die. I really relate to that. I didn’t want to die either. But he did what was necessary to change things. I admire that deeply.”

The point isn’t that some people naturally feel no fear, or that we should all not feel fear in the face of real violence. The point is that when people make the choice deeply in their souls to do what’s necessary for a better world, they are ready to summon the courage to do what they know is right. Nash often explains that contrary to popular belief, she had so much fear, but “…segregation was so horrible, so demeaning, so insulting, so degrading that the choice was to carry out this nonviolent movement successfully and eliminate segregation, or to tolerate it.” 

It’s this moral choice and moral transformation that gave the Nashville Student Movement the incredible courage to continue the Freedom Rides in 1961. The first group of Freedom Rides organized by CORE was bombed in Alabama and met with so much horrific violence by Southern whites that the mission had to be abandoned. Yet in the face of this violence, the Nashville students felt that giving up the Freedom Rides would be a surrender to a violent American society. They felt that the deep injustice of segregation must be clearly exposed as morally, philosophically, and physically barbaric. Surrendering would imply that violence could be employed to defeat the freedom movement — so the Nashville students continued the rides from where they had been left off. 

Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy told his assistant John Seigenthaler to call Nash and demand she stop the students’ Freedom Rides. Nash explained that the students were committed to continuing the Freedom Rides. After Seigenthaler angrily repeated to her, “Do you understand you’re going to get somebody killed?”, she replied:

“Sir, you should know we all signed our last wills and testaments last night before they left. We know someone will be killed, but we cannot let violence overcome nonviolence.”

Bernard Lafayette and Rev. James Lawson (in back) as part of the new wave of Freedom Rides led by the Nashville students, after CORE was forced to end theirs when white supremacists bombed their bus in Alabama.

Diane Nash explains that the students knew what they were doing was scary and to many, unfeasible and irrational. But the Nashville students, trained in and committed to moral righteousness, were prepared to sacrifice their lives to achieve freedom and justice for humanity:

“The commitment necessary to displace that social system that had been in place about 100 years at the time. It was tough. And we knew it. We knew that when it started. And so the commitment was there’s only one outcome, and that is the end of segregation. And we’ll do what we have to do in order to achieve that.”

When Nash says that “…the movement had a way of reaching inside you” and instilling courage, that when you are so seriously committed to ending injustice and bringing about a positive new world that you forget about your fear — I believe she is talking about what happens to people who choose to be defined by agape, a desire to create a Beloved Community, and a determination for justice. In Nash’s words, it’s when people follow higher laws of morality and God:

“So, you know, laws that are immoral: I think people have to realize that there do in fact exist higher laws and that they shouldn’t tolerate or obey those [immoral] laws.”

And when you follow higher laws of morality, when you believe in greater standards for humanity that all people can reach if they believed they could — you cannot possibly ever be defined by fear. 

This moral transformation of people within a group or movement into new men and women is the real measure of success. Activists today focus on how many bodies you can get to a protest or how much attention and clout your march receives. But the most important thing today’s young activist groups must focus on is whether people are growing into bigger, beautiful human beings through the process of taking moral responsibility for the world. Do people transform in the process? As Nash says: 

“Another important element in being successful at eliminating segregation was changing ourselves. We changed ourselves into people who could not be segregated. And once you change yourself, the world has to fit up against the new you.”

Our time

There is so much energy today from young people who want to act, but so much of our energy is misguided and misled. From fossil fuel protests to identity politics, most young people are looking for acceptance and authority in white Universities and the West. A response that their list of demands has been received by the University President is often satisfactory enough to them. In practice, students don’t transcend systems of oppression — their imaginations and praxis remain devastatingly reactive to and defined by them.

Today’s students don’t transform. And it’s because they are ignorant of and ill-prepared to make the moral choice. Young people like me don’t receive an excellent education like the Nashville students had from Lawson, King, and the people. Most students today receive a commodified “education” that encourages them to take their student activism and make a profitable career out of it when they graduate college. We don’t have the ideological clarity to understand why our society is the way it is, the training to begin to noncooperate with oppression, or the moral guidance to make the courageous choice to become the very new human beings a better world would birth. But it’s up to us now to continue the direct legacy of Diane Nash and the Nashville Student Movement and take on the great task of understanding our times so we are ideologically, spiritually, and morally ready to change our times.

Nash explains how the Nashville students above all got their strength from knowing they were building a new and better world for us:

“My contemporaries had you in mind when we acted. We were in dangerous situations, and sometimes people would freak out. A number of times I saw the person standing next to them put their arm around that person’s shoulder and say, ‘Remember that what we’re doing is important. We’re doing this for generations yet unborn.’ So although we had not met you, you should know that we loved you.”

Are we young activists acting out of love for all those unborn we haven’t met yet? From Diane Nash and Bernard Lafayette to James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner, our forebears decided at our age to spend the breadth and depth of their lives committed to a future society of peace, where it is morally unacceptable to force a black man to eat takeout squatted in front of the store he bought lunch from. We have that same moral responsibility to create a world that breaks from our violent Western society that has dictated and degraded the world for hundreds of years, the society that we have grown up in and are so depressed by. We have a responsibility to learn from Nashville and carry on the struggle for a new civilization grounded in true agape and peace, a struggle that should begin with us at the peak of our productive, creative lives. Taking that responsibility seriously means asking and answering the question: What kind of movement moves people to courage? That movement is not the ones we see today, but by studying and building off of Nashville’s lessons and successes, we can make the moral choice and win a new world for the generations yet unborn.

*** 

Note about the research: When I set out to write this article, I knew I’d have to search more than usual to find first-hand information on Nash and Nashville, but I was shocked at just how difficult it was to find the words of a historically significant figure like Diane Nash. There are no books or films dedicated to her, no consolidated anthologies of her speeches even — just small bits in larger books about the Civil Rights Movement. There was only one book on the Nashville students I could find, and one or two speeches by Nash in text format. Over 1-2 months, I listened to hours of interviews with Nash on YouTube and wherever else I could find clips. Nash was in my ear when I walked to work and cooked dinner, and it was really moving to hear her and transcribe her words. Nash says in a speech she gave in 1988 at Trinity College:

“So it turned out that [Fisk students] were not apathetic after all. And I think that if there’s an ingredient that we in my generation have not provided, that I was fortunate enough to have had, it is that my generation has not provided a framework for youth today to move into and to make necessary changes.”

I firmly believe that if more young people look to and listen to leaders of humanity like Diane Nash, we might just find that framework to move into and make necessary changes for the whole world.

Further Reading

From Diane Nash:

Secondary sources:

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