“Freedom, by definition, is people realizing that they are their own leaders.” -Diane Nash
I find myself disappointed that this will be the final post in our “She Did That” series. Alas, this is the last week of Women’s History Month for this year. I began this series as a tool of historical reclamation. American History teaches us far too little about women. American History is teaching us far too little about the contributions of women of color to the rights and freedoms many of us take for granted today. I believe that this loss of the stories of women is both an act of unintentional historical amnesia and an active and intentional attempt to disempower women by rendering our words, actions, bodies, and minds invisible. The truth is that this nation would not exist without the contributions of women. The women of our past had so few rights; there were so many limitations on their freedoms. They were restricted physically, socially, and politically. The least we can do is celebrate the ways they found freedom even in the most restricted circumstances. The least we can do is to remember them. As I wrote on this blog on March 1, the first day of Lent in the Christian tradition, Christian folks are called to remember Jesus. For, without memory, traditions are empty, they are meaningless symbols. I urged readers to remember Jesus and His love during this season of Lent so that we will be changed. In this Women’s History Month, my posts have intended to remember women and their creative resistance so that we will be changed.
Many of us have seen the film Hidden Figures which remembers the work of Katherine Johnson and the team of black women who were human calculators for NASA in the 1950s and 1960s. The author of the book Hidden Figures, Margot Lee Shetterly, coined the term to refer to the many black women who played prominent roles in American history yet have remained hidden from our historical study. By saying the names Maria W. Stewart, Jarena Lee, and Anna Pauline “Pauli” Murray over these past three posts, I have endeavored to raise the veil of invisibility that shrouds these women’s lives and accomplishments. I hope that regardless of your social status, reading my brief biographical pieces have helped you walk in visibility knowing that you matter. Your work matters. Your thoughts, hopes, dreams, and ambitions matter. I will continue to actively write about women, and black Christian women in particular moving forward. However, I will return to my earlier practice of writing more topically than biographically.
If you have been reading this entire series, you will recall that I began it by introducing you to a nineteenth-century shero of mine, Maria W. Stewart. Maria was a black woman born free in Hartford, CT in 1803. She was an orphan by age 15 and was widowed by 26. Her experience with God after her husband’s death compelled her to advocate for her people by making public speeches in Boston, MA before “promiscuous audiences of men and women.” She was the first woman of any race in American history to chart such a course for herself. I, and other scholars of African American Women’s History, have interpreted Maria as one who set a black feminist vision (this is a socio-political category) for herself and her listeners. She implored her fellow black women telling them to band together, not to be buried under pots and kettles, to pursue higher education, to practice religion and morality, and, if all else failed, to sue for their rights. Maria’s story has captivated my imagination for years now because her faith, political consciousness, and womanish leadership transformed the shape of life in Black Boston, however, despite her contributions she, and so many of the other black leaders in nineteenth-century New England, have been omitted entirely from our history books. Boston is much more than Cheers, The Boston Tea Party, and Harvard, and even if it were only those things, all those cultural markers of Boston have a race and gender story that has yet to be told. I use Maria’s nineteenth-century black feminist lens to read much of the rest of African American Women’s History. Last week that lens helped me to make sense of the beautiful and complex life of Anna Pauline “Pauli” Murray. This week, Maria’s lens will come to my aid again as I write about our final “She Did That” woman, Diane Nash!
Do you know the story of Diane Nash? I am writing about her this week because she was one of the students who shaped the Civil Rights Movement, and because she is still alive, and, as I hope this post makes apparent, her activism is very much alive too! Although she has returned to her hometown of Chicago, she never misses an opportunity to speak out. The Hidden Figures story is being told at exactly the right time because Katherine Johnson and so many of the women who worked with her in the 1950s and 1960s are still alive to witness it. A few years ago, director Ava Duvernay featured Diane Nash’s story in her movie Selma.
Diane grew up receiving mixed signals. Her grandmother told her she was special even while her grandmother also privileged whiteness over blackness. In her 2003 book¸ Witnessing and Testifying, African American Women’s Religious Historian Rosetta Ross explains that while Diane’s family opposed the racial practices of Nazi Germany, they “overlooked racial problems of the United States, thinking America to be freer for Black people than was actually the case.” So, racial conversations were suppressed in the Nash home while their identity as Americans was uplifted.
Nash was raised under what Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham has called Respectability Politics. I will write more about the dangers of respectability politics in a post later this Spring. The politics of respectability taught values like equality and self-respect. Higginbotham explains that “the politics of respectability tapped into Christian teachings that exalted the poor and the oppressed over the rich and the powerful. Christianity had historically advocated political submission . . . while it simultaneously demanded the autonomy . . . of the individual will.” Like Maria had done 100 years prior through her assertion that black women’s lives would improve if they clung to religion and morality, black families in the middle of the twentieth century clung to Christian virtues and their imitation of the best of “white behavior” to improve their status in the world. Moral whiteness was more godly than honest blackness. Of course, respectability politics have their merits. They can lead to a deeper sense of self-respect. I think of the Kingian concept of “somebody-ness” which emerges out of such an ideology. Respectability Politics help the black person to feel that they can achieve more than what their circumstances indicate they can. In that way, respectability politics have been a success. Contemporary black children and adults succeed by the standards of white America in white America. But, is that the way we ought to measure success? Respectability Politics demean black personhood by telling black folks that we are only valuable when we do our best imitation of the most virtuous white people. It is a wonder that under such restrictive politics we can still maintain any level of mental health. The Politics of Respectability make all of us, regardless of our race, sick. They enforce the idea that only the healthy, Christian, financially successful, white male is a valuable member of society. The myths of our American caste system are killing us, and Diane Nash has made it her mission to call it out!
Nash’s foray into civil rights in her college years was most likely a reaction against her grandmother’s notions of blackness. Raised in Chicago, Nash was genuinely shocked to encounter segregation while enrolled at Nashville’s Fisk University. When she learned about the sit-ins students were conducting across the South, she got involved. She became a member of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). Perhaps Nash’s first defining moment as a leader came during a march at city hall. While the mayor was speaking, Nash felt the conversation was going nowhere so she took charge of the conversation asking him, “do you feel it is wrong to discriminate against a person solely on the basis of their race or color?” It was a clear moral question and Nash and her fellow protesters were on the moral high ground.
After the success of the sit-ins, she led the Freedom Rides. As a leader, she encountered the sexism of black male religious leaders whom she felt had “come in and were taking over.” Rosetta Ross explains that “When the first chair of SNCC was elected at its founding meeting in Raleigh, the vote was held when Nash was out of the room. Some people . . . felt this was a deliberate action designed to select a man instead of a woman.” Although she was often relegated to the background of the public work of SNCC, “she developed a reputation that made it necessary for men in SNCC to acknowledge her leadership and take her seriously.” Diane felt the issue especially acutely during the years she was married to fellow activist James Bevel, a young minister who was one of King’s primary advisers. While Bevel and King receive much of the credit for the activism in Selma, Diane was the architect of the plan.
Her outspoken nature continues to this day. On March 7, 2015, national leaders gathered at the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama to recreate the historic march performed by Diane and her co-laborers. Everyone was there. Everyone that is, except for Diane Nash. When asked about her conspicuous absence, Nash, who is now in her seventies clearly explained that “I refused to march because George Bush marched.” What political stance will you take at your own expense, my fellow free agents? Where does your political consciousness and your faith journey align? When will you be your own leader? Maria, Jarena, Pauli, and Diane remind us through their witness as black, Christian women that we are called to something deeper than spiritual holiness. We are called to be socially holy. Let’s get to the work of creative resistance. See you next week.