Last updated: January 13, 2021
Nearly a half a century after adopting nonviolence principles, Diane Nash said in an 2017 interview that, “there was probably no greater invention during the twentieth century than Gandhi’s invention of how to really wage warfare and change society without killing or maiming our fellow human beings...”[i] To be clear, for Nash, nonviolence is not a strategy or tactic, nor it is simply the absence of violence. It is a way of life. It is an understanding that the enemy is never people, but rather unjust political and economic systems. Thus, to combat racism, sexism, ignorance, etc. we must love and respect the person espousing the unjust views while attacking their attitudes and actions. Using the Greek word agape, meaning brotherly love, Nash coined the term agapic energy describe this comprehensive phenomenon. This unconditional love for humanity was the driving force behind the movement in the 1960s and can be a driving force among today’s movements, according to Nash. We honor Diane Judith Nash for reminding us of the power of love.
Nash was on a date at the Tennessee State Fair in 1959 when she discovered segregated bathroom. A product of a middle-class Catholic upbringing in Chicago, this was the first time Nash had experienced the harsh realities of the Jim Crow south. Driven by anger and the desite to make a difference, Nash began taking courses with James Lawson, a Black minister who has spent time studying Gandhian principles of nonviolence. Aided by her beauty and wit, she quickly became a prominent leader among his students.
The use of violence, she argues, is counterproductive. Violence tends to increase the problem rather than solve it. And, instead of addressing the true root of the problem, unjust systems, people get injured or hurt in the process—someone, Nash reminds us, deserves love. Once unjust systems, rather than people, are recognized as the enemy, the oppressed must understand that in order to be oppressed they cooperate in their own oppression. Using the example of the Montgomery Bus Boycott, Nash argues that Black people boarded the buses, paid their fares, and walked to the segregated section. By boycotting, they withdrew their participation in the oppressive system. In doing so, they caused the system to fall. However, we must remember that the only person we can change is ourself. “When you change yourself, the world has to fit up against the new you…We changed ourselves into people who could not be segregated, and that presented a new set of options to Southern white racists,” Nash says.[ii]
The same agapic energy that propelled the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s can help student and youth activists today. There are six basic steps to employing nonviolent, agapic energy in affecting social change: investigation, education, negotiation, demonstration, resistance, and prevention of reoccurrence. During the investigative phase activists must focus on a specific objective and write it down. Then they must gather any information needed to accomplish the objective and identify how the oppressed are participating in their oppression. Next, activists must educate the cause’s followers on what was learned during the investigative phase. During the negotiation phase, activist must make their opponent understand their objective and make sure they understand their behavior will not be tolerated. Next, the public needs to see the purpose of the objective. In step five, resistance, the oppressed withdraws their participation in the oppression. Resistance takes on many forms. In the final stage, activists work to prevent the problem from reoccurring. Some methods may include the creation of museums, education foundations, or documentary films that examine the problem and solution.[iii]
Like many Black women activists in the Civil Rights Movement, Diane Nash has not maintained the high profile she had during the 1960s. Instead, she has quietly continued her activism, which remains rooted in agapic energy. Her focus has expanded to peace and the antiwar movement, housing rights, and later to children’s education. In 2016, she helped raised money for a private autopsy of Rexdale Henry, a Native American activist who was found dead in a jail under suspicious circumstances. She continues to help coordinate an annual memorial and celebration of the lives of Andrew Goodman, Michael Henry Schwerner, and James Earl Chaney. Goodman, Chaney, and Schwerner were civil rights workers who were abducted and murdered in Neshoba County, Mississippi in June 1964. They were working with the Freedom Summer campaign to register African American voters. Before being murdered, they were held in the same jail Henry was found in over 50 years later. Freedom, she argues, “is not something that you get and then you’ve got it…[it] is a constant, never-ending struggle, and every generation faces its own challenges.”[iv]
Nash's work is associated with the Selma to Montgomery National Historic Trail and the Freedom Riders National Monument. Her stepfather, John Baker, was a porter for the Pullman Company and a member of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters. Baker helped fund her education, thus Nash can be associated with Pullman National Monument.
This article is part of the "Exploring the Meaning of Black Womanhood Series: Hidden Figures in NPS Places" written by Dr. Mia L. Carey, NPS Mellon Humanities Post-Doctoral Fellow in the Legacy of the Civil Rights Movement. This project was made possible through the National Park Service in part by a grant from the National Park Foundation and the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.
Allen, Kevin. 2017. Civil Rights Pioneer Says Love Fueled the Movement. https://law.nd.edu/news-events/news/civil-rights-pioneer-says-love-fueled-the-movement/, accessed September 17, 2020.
Bell, Janet Dewart. 2018. Lighting the Fires of Freedom: African American Women in the Civil Rights Movement. New York: The New Press.
Ducibella, Jim. 2016. Nash infused Lemon Project audience with agapic energy. https://www.wm.edu/news/stories/2016/nash-infuses-lemon-project-audience-with-agapic-energy.php, accessed September 20, 2020.
Hall, Heidi. 2013. Years after change, activist lives her convictions. https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation/2013/03/26/nashville-civil-rights-diane-nash/2023301/, accessed July 24, 2020.
Lartey, Jamiles. 2017. Diane Nash: ‘Non-violent protest was the most important invention of the 20th century.’ https://www.theguardian.com/global-development-professionals-network/2017/apr/06/diane-nash-non-violent-protest-civil-rights-gandhi-martin-luther-king, accessed August 30, 2020.
Olsen, Lynn. 2001. Freedom’s Daughters: The Unsung Heroines of the Civil Rights Movement from 1830 to 1970. New York: Scribner.
Williams, Colton. 2018. Civil Rights Leader Diane Nash Lectures on Agapic Energy, Social Justice. https://thesewaneepurple.org/2018/04/23/civil-rights-leader-diane-nash-lectures-on-agapic-energy-social-justice/, accessed September 20, 2020.
[i] Lartey 2017
[ii] Allen 2017
[iii] Ducibella 2016
[iv] Allen 2017