Ordinary People Can Bring Change, Activist Says

Prominent civil rights activist Diane Nash, whose leadership spurred the sit-in movement and helped create the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) in the early 1960s, said yesterday the Civil Rights Movement left a legacy for today: Ordinary people can bring about social change.

"No one can solve today's problems but you and me," she told an audience at Troy University's Rosa Parks Museum. "History books mistakenly portray the Civil Rights Movement as Dr. Martin Luther King's movement. But it was a people's movement. Many thousands participated.

"If young people think of it as King's movement, they'll wish for a leader. But if they understand that it was ordinary people who did it, they can ask themselves 'What can I do?'," Nash said.

Known for her commitment and discipline, Nash was a leader among Nashville college students who became shock troops of the lunch counter sit-ins and were legendary in the early days of SNCC. After the original Freedom Riders of May 1961 were so bloodied in Birmingham they were encouraged to quit by several black leaders, it was Nash who sent a fresh wave down from Nashville and into Mississippi.

She and fellow SNCC workers remained there and organized the earliest mass demonstrations against segregation in Mississippi.

"Oppression always requires the cooperation of the oppressed," Nash said. "It's a partnership, a dance, the oppressor and the oppressed together."

It took a few years for her to fully understand the strategy of nonviolent protest, she said, but it worked. And it could work to solve today's problems, Nash said.

"What we did in the South was change ourselves -- from people who could be segregated to people who were 'unsegregatable,'" she said.

Introducing Nash at the Troy University Black History Month event was former SNCC member, Charles Cobb, who now lives in Washington, D.C. Another former SNCC worker, Jim Webb of Montgomery, was in the audience and was recognized by Nash from the podium.

Nash, who now lives in Chicago after leaving the South in 1965, was honored with the John F. Kennedy Library's Distinguished American Award in 2003 and the LBJ Award for Leadership in Civil Rights from the Lucy Baines Johnson Library and Museum in 2004.

Noted author Taylor Branch, who spoke at the Civil Rights Memorial Center earlier this month, dedicated his new book, At Canaan's Edge: America in the King Years 1965-68, to Nash.

Following her role in the Civil Rights Movement, Nash became prominent in the peace movement to end the Vietnam War.