Last week President Biden awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom to seventeen people. Much of the time, this award is given to people who have at best made only questionable contributions to our world, and to some who are outright bad. For example, Biden himself received the award from President Obama, and one of this year’s honorees is the exploitative and anti-worker former head of Apple, Steve Jobs. But, every once in a while, one of the nominees truly deserves recognition, and for reasons that matter.
One of these is Diane Nash. In 1960, as a student at Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee, Nash became active in the Black student movement that challenged segregation all over the South. She joined the lunch counter sit-in movement, which then led her to other protests, boycotts, and eventually even larger activities like the Freedom Rides, and leadership roles in organizations like the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). She was arrested on dozens of occasions, once spending thirty days in jail, another time ten days in jail while pregnant. As a member of SNCC, she helped build student organizing capacity, focusing on developing leadership skills among young people entering the movement.
Awards like this are not important. What is important is that Nash and thousands of other self-sacrificing, committed young people – including many other women – were the often-unsung leaders of the Black freedom movement of that period. They demonstrated tremendous initiative, leadership, commitment, and courage that helped win many large and small victories in the struggle against Jim Crow racism.
Diane Nash, and the other young activists of SNCC and the Black freedom movement generally, are still worthy examples for oppressed and exploited people fighting injustice.