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Freedom Rides from ’60s recalled

Diane Nash, who helped lead the Freedom Rides voter registration in the South, speaks at Germanna Monday. / Photo by Autumn Parry

Diane Nash, who helped lead the Freedom Rides voter registration in the South, speaks at Germanna Monday. / Photo by Autumn Parry

Effecting social change is like working with hot metal, says civil rights pioneer Diane Nash.

“While the metal is hot, it can be shaped and molded,” Nash told a capacity crowd Monday at Germanna Community College’s Fredericksburg Area Campus. “Once it’s cold, there’s nothing you can do with it.”

Nash, who helped organize the 1960s’ Freedom Rides with civil rights leader James Farmer, used that metaphor to explain her and Farmer’s actions after angry whites bombed an activists’ bus in Anniston, Ala, and beat some activists so severely that they could not continue the campaign to register black voters in the South.

Many people, including the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., called for a cooling-off period to reduce racial tensions and the risk of bodily harm.

But Nash and other student leaders in Nashville, where she was attending Fisk University, thought that strategy was wrong.

Had the campaign paused then, “the message would have been sent that nonviolent projects could be stopped by inflicting a great deal of violence,” she told more than 220 students and community members who attended her Black History Month talk at Germanna’s Workforce Building in Spotsylvania County.

Though she spoke quietly, Nash kept her standing-room-only audience, which filled an auditorium and a triple-size classroom, riveted for two hours. Her lecture, streamed live on Germanna’s website, even drew a busload of students from three Baltimore-area schools, who devoted their Presidents Day holiday to traveling to hear her inspiring message.

The recipient of many awards for her lifetime of social activism, Nash has been profiled in two PBS documentaries, 2012’s “Freedom Riders” and “Eyes on the Prize: America’s Civil Rights Years 1954–1965.”

She recalled getting on the phone with Farmer, head of the Congress of Racial Equality, back in 1961 and telling him the rides needed to continue “and continue right then.” Nash offered to have her fellow students step in so Freedom Ride buses could continue their journeys into the Deep South.

After ensuring she understood the danger—that her Nashville Student Movement members risked death on what he called a suicide mission—Farmer gave their work his blessing and the Ride went on.

Farmer, the man who dreamed up the Freedom Rides and waged the nation’s first lunch-counter sit-in—in 1942 in Chicago, Nash’s hometown—“doesn’t get the credit he deserves” today for his civil rights work, she said.

Farmer, who taught at Mary Washington College in his later years and lived in Spotsylvania, two miles from the Germanna campus until his death in 1999, impressed Nash with his commitment and guts.

She recalled his cool inside a church in Birmingham, Ala., surrounded by a mob that turned over automobiles and set them ablaze, planning to storm citizens and civil rights activists in the church that night.

Farmer reached U.S. Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy in Washington, who had President Kennedy federalize the state’s National Guard to protect the Freedom Riders.

“I remember that after that, unlike some leaders of the movement, [Farmer] got on the bus the next day,” she said. “That was a very courageous thing to do at that moment. His life was in danger, as it was for the rest of us. I had a great deal of respect for him. He is very much missed.”

Nash, 75, explained how as a young woman starting classes at Fisk, she was outraged by Nashville’s in-your-face segregation of restaurants, libraries, pools, parks, hotels and other public accommodations.

Looking for a way to change that system, she wound up in a weekly, off-campus workshop led by the Rev. Jim Lawson, who had learned Gandhian principles in India and been imprisoned as a conscientious objector during the Korean War.

“I was a lucky woman,” Nash recalled. “I was in the right place at the right time, and I received excellent training until I learned how to use nonviolent tactics.”

But now, the term “nonviolence” bothers her. It doesn’t convey the positive and comprehensive nature of the philosophy and techniques that Lawson and others taught, Nash said.

She prefers to speak of “agapic energy,” drawn from the Greek word “agape” for love.

That approach, emulating the civil disobedience that Mohandas Gandhi used to democratize colonial India, has proved again and again that it works, Nash said.

“During the sit-ins, the fact that people outside the South cared about fellow human beings being humiliated and unjustly discriminated against motivated them to refuse to patronize Woolworth’s and other chains in their communities,” she recalled. “Thus, the energy of hundreds of thousands of ordinary people was exerted to correct those injustices. And that effort was successful.”

A half-century later, after Nashville’s students and residents waged the South’s first successful effort to integrate restaurants, Nash still believes in the power of what Lawson and Gandhi taught.

“People are never your enemy,” she said. “Unjust political systems, unjust economic systems, attitudes, racism, sexism, ignorance, emotion and mental illnesses are enemies.”

Clint Schemmer: 540/374-5424