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Civil rights icon to speak at Germanna

An icon of America’s civil rights movement and its most perilous days will grace Germanna Community College’s Fredericksburg Area Campus this month.

Diane Nash, who organized the 1960s’ epic Freedom Rides with civil rights leader James Farmer, and the first successful campaign to integrate lunch counters, will speak Feb. 17 as part of the college’s observation of Black History Month.

Nash became involved in the movement in 1959 as a student at Fisk University in Nashville, overturning the “whites only” lock on the city’s dime-store eateries.

She helped found the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC, pronounced “snick”), which organized voter registration drives across the South, particularly Georgia, Alabama and Mississippi.

Seeds of the group were planted on Feb. 1, 1960, when black students from North Carolina A&T University wouldn’t leave a Woolworth’s lunch counter in Greensboro, N.C., where they had been denied service. This sparked a wave of other sit-ins in college towns across the South, including Fredericksburg and Petersburg, as youths protested at whites-only public libraries, parks, swimming pools and movie theaters, as well as retail lunch counters.

SNCC was instrumental in the era’s sit-ins and voter-registration Freedom Rides, and played a leading role in the 1963 March on Washington, Mississippi Freedom Summer and the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party.

Its members defied local segregation laws as part of the Freedom Rides organized by Farmer’s Congress of Racial Equality, which practiced nonviolent protest, emulating the tactics of Mohandas Gandhi.

More than 436 people took part in Freedom Rides during the spring and summer of 1961. The ride’s first stop, as its bus headed south, was Fredericksburg, but white leaders ensured there was no confrontation.

Writing in his memoir about the dangerous days after whites burned a Freedom Riders’ bus near Anniston, Ala., Farmer lauded SNCC’s “courageous kids,” who insisted on carrying the voting-rights campaign into Louisiana and Mississippi.

“These young men and women had no guns with which to defend themselves—only those of the indomitable human spirit,” he remembered in “Lay Bare the Heart,” his autobiography.

Out of SNCC came leaders such as Congressman John Lewis, NAACP Chairman Julian Bond and former Washington Mayor Marion Barry.

Nash was profiled in the PBS documentary “Eyes on the Prize: America’s Civil Rights Years 1954–1965.”

The Germanna Community College Education Foundation is bringing Nash from Chicago, where she lives, to the college’s campus in Spotsylvania County. Located in Massaponax, it’s two miles from the home in which Dr. Farmer spent the final 13 years of his life, while teaching history at Mary Washington College.

Nash will give her talk at 12:30 p.m. Monday, Feb. 17, in Room 105 A–B of the Workforce & Technology Building on the Fredericksburg Area Campus. Admission is free. The public is invited to attend. Overflow seating will be available in Sealy Auditorium at the Workforce Building.

Clint Schemmer: 540/368-5029

ONLINE >> PBS video of Nash: