Two Women Fuel the Freedom Rides

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(WOMENSENEWS)–As the modern Civil Rights Movement surfaced in the 1960s, sit-ins aimed at desegregating eating places in the South were an early, popular tactic of a new group called the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee.

Well-dressed, well-behaved black students, educated in Mahatma Gandhi’s philosophy of civil disobedience, trained not to react to harassment or violence, sat determinedly at the lunch counters of white-only establishments, asking to be served. On Feb. 6, 1961, at a sit-in in Rock Hill, S.C., authorities arrested, among others, 22-year-old Diane Nash and 18-year-old Ruby Smith-Robinson.

Nash, a student at the Fisk University in Nashville, Tenn., had been organizing sit-ins there. Smith-Robinson, recently enrolled at Atlanta’s Spelman College for women, urged the protestors, on principle, not to accept bail. That strategy quickly became official SNCC policy. The young women served 30 days in the county jail.

Freedom Rides were broader, bolder and even more dangerous undertakings, aimed at challenging segregated restrooms, restaurants, waiting rooms and all conditions of interstate travel. The first bus riders headed south from Washington, D.C., on May 4, 43 years ago. In Anniston, Ala., a bus was firebombed. In Birmingham, a violent mob attacked while the police stood back. The Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), a New York-based organization, wanted to stop the rides. Robinson and Nash stepped in and organized others to put their lives on the line and continue the ride. They signed their wills the night before they left.

As the movement picked up steam, provoking greater violent resistance, both women were often beaten and imprisoned. In May 1962, married and four months pregnant, Nash was jailed for “civil disobedience” in Mississippi. Refusing to appeal or post bond, she told the judge, “This will be a black baby born in Mississippi and thus where ever he is born he will be in prison. If I go to jail now it may help hasten that day when my child and all children will be free.”

Robinson became a legend in SNCC and was named its executive secretary, the only woman ever to serve in that capacity, but cancer cut her life short in 1967. Nash was a critical part of the voting rights drive in the south and a bridge between young black activists and the peace movement as well as the early women’s liberation movement. She is on the lecture circuit today, still an advocate for non-violence because. She says, “If violence was effective at bringing about social change, we would be living in a Utopia.”

Louise Bernikow is the author of seven books and numerous magazine articles. She travels to campuses and community groups with a lecture and slide show about activism called “The Shoulders We Stand On: Women as Agents of Change.”

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