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Civil rights movement leader speaks at annual Martin Luther King Jr. Day luncheon

| Tuesday, January 21, 2020

As part of Notre Dame’s “Walk the Walk Week” and in celebration of Martin Luther King Jr. Day, the campus community joined together for a luncheon at the Joyce Athletic and Convocation Center. After a choral performance and an opening invocation, Diane Nash — a civil rights movement leader who helped integrate lunch counters and organize the iconic Freedom Riders — spoke with a panel of students and faculty about civil rights, nonviolence and the fight for justice. 

Events like these that bring people together in remembrance of history, Nash said, are healthy and beneficial for a community. However, she added “history’s most important function, though, is to help us cope with the present.”

To truly honor King and the legacy of the civil rights movement, Nash said, holidays and monuments do not suffice — Americans must continue nonviolent movements which resist systems of oppression.

“The Wright brothers were probably pretty good guys,” Nash said. “Wouldn’t it have been a shame if we had dedicated a holiday to them and never developed their invention — developed aviation? We would have missed out on a lot.”

Nash noted, however, that substantive activism requires courage and sacrifice. She recounted a time she spoke at a college and a student asked her, “How can I make a social change and not get my professors angry with me?” 

“My response was, ‘You’ve got to be kidding me,’” Nash said. “I told that young lady about the many students in the 1960s who were expelled from school for participating in the civil rights movement. And that’s not even to mention those who were severely wounded, who went to jail and those who were killed. So, sacrifice is necessary.”

Nash added that social movements begin when a persecuted group of people decide to stand up for the rights of themselves and others in their community.

Genevieve Redsten | The Observer

Diane Nash, a Civil Rights activist who advocated for lunch counter integration and organized the Freedom Riders, spoke Monday at the annual luncheon honoring Martin Luther King, Jr. as part of Walk the Walk Week.

“Oppression always requires the participation of the oppressed,” Nash said. “If the oppressed withdraw their participation from that oppressive system, the system will fall.”

Nash invoked the example of the Montgomery bus boycott, during which oppressed, black Americans refused to ride on the city’s segregated public buses. By withdrawing financial support from the oppressive system, Nash said, they forced the system to fall.

But, Nash added, real nonviolent social movements require more than mere protest. First, they must educate the oppressed, educate their oppressors and negotiate with their oppressors, she said. Demonstration and resistance, she said, should only follow once these earlier steps are complete. 

Even after social movements make progress, Nash added, their work cannot end — they must fight to make sure the oppressive system does not repeat itself.

Senior Kenzie Isaac, the director of diversity and inclusion for Notre Dame’s student government, asked Nash how she practiced self-care while working long hours to organize students — and while facing racist violence in the process.

“I don’t think I was able to do a lot of self-care apart from the movement itself,” Nash said, but she added that the very act of resisting was restorative.

“Not to resist being oppressed and discriminated against like that was unacceptable,” Nash said. “The movement itself was self-care.”

Although Nash’s activism was primarily focused on ending racial segregation and racism, Isaac asked how other forms of oppression factored into her work.

“You were a young person when you started out in the movement, you were a woman and, to tie all that together, you were an African American woman,” Isaac said. “And so, I’d like to hear more about how you being young and you being a woman in this male-dominated [movement] informed your approach to activism — and what sort of barriers or benefits that posed throughout your work.”

Throughout her work in the civil rights movement, Nash said she faced sexist discrimination from other male civil rights leaders.

“Women were very active in the civil rights movement. Women did everything that men did,” Nash said. “But it hadn’t occurred to us that the same thing that we were saying about justice and equality in the race were applicable to gender.”

As new leaders undertake the fight for social justice, Libby Moyer, a panel member and a second-year Notre Dame law student, asked Nash what role white allies should assume. Nash agreed that white allies were essential to the civil rights movement — and continue to be important — but that black Americans nonetheless need their own independent activist spaces.

“I also think it’s important for descendants of enslaved Africans in this country to have organizations and movements of our own. The civil rights movement was a movement of black students supported by black communities to eliminate segregation. We had white support,” Nash said.

By assuming leadership roles and creating all-black movements, Nash said, black social justice leaders aren’t simply sidelining white allies.

“If you make decisions about your household — if you decided that you need a refrigerator and what kind of refrigerator you need — and only you and your spouse make that decision, that doesn’t mean that you hate the man across the street,” Nash said.

Before the event came to a close, Nash addressed the students in the crowd.

“As you go through life, you will have decisions to make, and my advice would be [to] always make the decision that will make you admire and respect the person you see in the mirror,” she said.

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