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Activist reflects on civil rights movement experience

| Wednesday, March 8, 2017

American civil rights activist Diane Nash — who led the first successful campaign to desegregate lunch counters, was a part of the Selma voting rights movement and co-founded the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee — shared her personal experiences with racism and her integral efforts in the civil rights movement Tuesday.

Nash was first exposed to the full extent of overt, state-sponsored racial segregation as a college student at Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee, she said. During the fall of 1959, Nash said she was shocked into the reality of Jim Crow laws in the south. Originally from the south side of Chicago, she said she was always aware segregation existed but did not know its severity until she moved to the south. 

“When I obeyed segregation rules, it felt like I was agreeing that I was too inferior to go through front doors or [to] restaurants, swimming pools and other public accommodations,” Nash said.

In downtown Nashville, African Americans could only purchase food in restaurants on a take-out basis, she said. When she walked down the streets during lunchtime, African Americans lined the curbs and alleys, eating the lunches they brought from home or bought as take-out, she added.

Nash said she was dissatisfied with the word “nonviolence” as it pertains to the civil rights movements of the 1960s.

“Nonviolence means absence of violence,” she said. “[I] wanted a term that encompassed more than the absence of violence.”

Nash’s dissatisfaction led her to coin the phrase “agapic energy,” meaning energy produced by a love for humankind. Inspired by Mohandas Gandhi’s way of observing love energy, as well as the Greek word “agape” — which means brotherly love or a love of humankind — Nash said agapic energy was an improvement on the term nonviolence.

“Agapic energy is not passive — it’s active,” she said. “Users are not pacifists — we are activists.”

Nash said she discovered the basic principles of agapic energy in the 1960s and has used them over her lifetime. An important principle of agapic energy is to realize people are not your enemies, she added.

“Unjust political systems, unjust economic systems, attitudes, racism, sexism, ignorance … are enemies,” Nash said. “If you recognize that people are not the enemies, you can love and respect the person [and] at the same time, attack the attitudes of that person.”

Nash said she slowly helped desegregate the restaurants in Nashville by targeting six establishments at a time. Eventually, Nashville became one of the first southern cities to desegregate lunch counters.

“We changed ourselves into people who could not be segregated,” Nash said. “That presented a new set of options to Southern white racists. They could either shoot us or desegregate because they could no longer segregate.

“Very often, we give away our power. If you understand that concept, you are going to save yourself a lot of time and effort trying to change other people.”

Nash said there are six phases in an agapic energy campaign: investigation, education, negotiation, demonstration, resistance and insurance that the problem does not reoccur.

“The purpose of the demonstration phase is to focus the attention on the community,” she said. “Resistance is when the oppressed withdraw their participation from the oppressive system. Whatever the issue that you’re working on, you would have the oppressed withdraw their participation. During the sixth phase, you might institutionalize an education in your community or establish a museum.”

Nash said the movement of the ’60s provides a legacy that people can use in 2017. She said people today have an opportunity to move a step higher into their evolvement as an improved species, and demonstrations today and the people who participate in them must know the rest of the strategy.

“We must understand that elected officials have not and will not do what’s necessary to protect the interest of this country and of American citizens,” she said. “The only way this country will make it through this frightening period and survive with citizens having a reasonable measure of rights is that we citizens must take the future of this country in our own hands.”

Nash said if they had waited for officials to desegregate lunch counters and give African Americans the right to vote, “we probably would still be waiting.”

Nash was arrested for her protesting efforts in the 1960s. When she and others marched, they very often knew they faced the risk of being killed or injured, she said. She said their fears were understandable, but their actions were necessary.

“I’d like for you to know that although we had not yet known you, we loved you, and we were trying to bring about the best society for you to be born into and for you to come of age in,” Nash said. “Future generations will look to you to do the same.”

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About Selena Ponio

Selena Ponio is from Dallas, Texas and is currently a junior at the University of Notre Dame. She is the Associate News Editor for The Observer. Selena lives in Breen-Phillips hall and is majoring in International Economics with a concentration in Spanish and is minoring in Journalism, Ethics & Democracy.

Contact Selena