On 13 February 1960, 12 days after the student sit-ins began at lunch counters in Greensboro NC, students from Fisk University, Baptist Theological Seminary, and Tennessee State University entered three Nashville stores that had segregated lunch counters. After making their purchases, the students sat down at the lunch counters. Thus began weeks of sit-ins that culminated on 10 May with the desegregation of lunch counters in Nashville, the first large Southern city to desegregate its eating establishments. The Nashville student sit-ins were organized and led by student activists Diane Nash and now U.S. congressman John Lewis.
Nash, architect of those successful lunch counter sit-ins and later, the Freedom Rides, was in Dallas last weekend to speak at the Fisk University Southwestern Region Alumni Conference Luncheon on Saturday, 20 January. She had a lot to say about the future direction of justice-seekers. Though she told a few anecdotes about her years at the forefront of the modern civil rights movement, her focus was on today’s activists and activism.
The soft-spoken Nash made a number of cogent observations including that
- oppression always requires the cooperation of the oppressed;
- the only person one can change is oneself; and
- racist whites and their progeny are benefitting financially from the legacy of the modern civil rights movement by creating museums, “Freedom Trails,” and other moneymaking ventures.
Nash’s advice to African Americans included these suggestions
- Liberation struggles should be intergenerational;
- Blacks need to change our self-image to see ourselves as leaders of the country;
- Don’t count on elected officials to do what needs to be done, because they are more concerned with reelection than anything else;
- Identify objectives and plot a strategy to achieve them; and
- Build things that will generate tourism revenue so that we can reap the financial benefits of the civil rights movement of the 1950s, ’60s, and ’70s.
A personable, young 2017 Fisk alumnus named Justin Jones delivered the response to Ms. Nash’s remarks. He was quite the orator, revealing his familiarity with Nash’s accomplishments and the work of Martin Luther King. And Jones had ideas of his own, including exposing Donald Trump’s notion that Congress can help the DACA recipients or the CHIP youngsters, but not both as the false dichotomy it is. I expect to hear more from this young man who is living and working in Nashville as a lead organizer with the Forward Together Moral Movement, Tennessee.
The message I got from both Diane Nash and young Mr. Jones is that African Americans need to stop looking for “leaders,” and instead become leaders ourselves. They certainly gave me — and I hope you — something to think about.