When Diane Nash left for work in 1960s Nashville, Tenn., she knew might not ever make it home again.
At the time, the Chicago native spent her days canvassing neighborhoods and drawing crowds of unregistered black voters to the polls. She knew her past experience of leading sit-ins at segregated lunch counters and bus boycotts made her a walking target.
“There were several days when I made myself 15 to 20 minutes late for work,” she told an audience gathered at Brenau University on Thursday evening. “I needed those 15 to 20 minutes to decide whether getting the right to vote was worth getting killed about.”
In the end, she decided it was.
This year marks the 50th anniversary of the student-led sit-ins, which led to the desegregation of public facilities such as lunch counters.
In college, Nash searched the Fisk University campus in Nashville for like-minded individuals who saw the social injustice behind segregation and eventually became a pioneer of the civil rights movement.
“I felt such outrage at being denied public accommodations,” she said.
With U.S. Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., Nash became one of the first members of Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and led the Freedom Rides program, at times facing mobs and violence to protest segregation on interstate buses.
Despite witnessing friends and colleagues fall to brutal beatings, having her own home phone wiretapped and her mail searched daily, Nash said she never hated any person who acted against them.
“People are never the enemy,” she said. “Unjust political systems — those are enemies. Unjust economic systems — those are enemies.”
“When people are killed, no change can happen,” she said.
Much her own beliefs are influenced by Mahatma Gandhi and philosophies that preach love in lieu of violence.
Along with Gandhi, Nash said she practices a different kind of warfare, “agapic energy,” or the power of the love of humankind.
“You often kill individuals and leave the problem untouched,” she said. “If you can recognize that the person is not the enemy, you can love or respect the person at the same time you attack the enemy.”
It’s a way of thinking, Nash said, our current government lacks.
“They have made a pretty big mess of things,” she said.
But what youth activists need is not another leader such as Martin Luther King Jr. to eradicate issues faced in today’s society such as teen violence, drugs, the Iraq and Afghanistan wars and economic inequality, she said. According to Nash, King was a powerful spokesman for civil rights but citizens brought about change, not him.
“It was not Martin Luther King’s movement — it was the people’s movement,” she said. “If you understand that it was people’s movement ... you might instead ask, what do I need to do?”
For Brenau sophomore Jillian Ford, she answered that call when studying Nash’s Freedom Rider movement in a class and decided to invite her to speak on campus.
“(Nash) says a lot of history is more personal than we think it is, and I truly believe that,” said Ford, president of the student organization Silhouettes, which organized the event. “I cried one time talking to her. I think it’s overwhelming for someone to have been part of something so big and for her to be so modest.”
For Gainesville councilwoman Myrtle Figueras, listening to Nash speak was a reminder of her own experience in 1960s South.
“I was in college from 1960 to 1964 in Greensboro, N.C., and I was there for all of the sit-ins,” she said. “It makes me relieve a portion of my life that I experienced. It was a beautiful lecture.”