Kitchen to Classroom: An Evening with Diane Nash, Civil Rights Heroine

Diane Nash leads a 1961 march in Nashville. Photo courtesy of the Tennessean.
“Kitchen to Classroom” is a weekly dispatch from our postdoctoral fellow, Angela Jill Cooley. You can follow Professor Cooley on Twitter at @foodandrace.

On Wednesday night, the Anna Julia Cooper Project on Gender, Race, and Politics in the South at Tulane University in New Orleans hosted a discussion between civil rights leader Diane Nash and Tulane Political Science professor Melissa Harris-Perry. Among other achievements, Diane Nash was a cofounder of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). In 1960, she was a key figure in the successful effort to desegregate downtown lunch counters in Nashville.

During last night’s conversation, Nash attributed lunch counter successes to strategy and negotiation. Activists developed their strategy with the economic interests of downtown business leaders in mind. At first, Nash recalls, store managers politely listened to student complaints of segregated lunch counters, but then quickly dismissed these concerns. Business disruptions caused by sit-ins and a downtown boycott by the black community during the Easter season led to the desegregation of six downtown eateries in May 1960.

Harris-Perry (l) and Nash in conversation at Tulane University on Wednesday night.

When business leaders worried that desegregation would hurt their business with white customers, the students acted to alleviate these concerns. They recruited several older, progressive white women, widely recognized as “dignified ladies,” to sit at the lunch counters for three weeks following desegregation. Their presence, Nash recalls, ensured the white community that whites and blacks could eat together, thereby avoiding a white boycott of integrated restaurants.

The following year, a new round of protests in Nashville catalyzed further progress. Again, Nash credits this achievement to strategy and negotiation. She recalls that one of the store managers who had initially opposed desegregation the previous year served as an ally in these later negotiations. He talked with managers at other cafés and lunch counters, insisting that integration did not hurt his business.

This experience taught Nash an important lesson: “People are never your enemy,” she said Wednesday night. “Attitudes, racism, sexism, mental illness, unjust economic systems…all those are the enemy.” The basis of nonviolent activism is to love the person while you fight the unfair system. This was Nash’s message for students who seek to fight injustice today: “The task is to break up oppressive systems.” C-Span American History TV filmed the conversation between  Nash and Harris-Perry, and the event should be available to view online shortly.

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