While participating in the Nashville sit-in, Diane Nash first met fellow protester, James Bevel, whom she would later marry. They had two children together, a son and a daughter. The couple divorced after seven years of marriage and Nash never remarried.
In August 1961, Diane Nash participated in a picket line to protest a local supermarket's refusal to hire blacks. When local white youths started egging the picket line and punching various people, police intervened. They arrested 15 people, only five of whom were the white attackers. All but one of the blacks who were jailed accepted the $5 bail and were freed. But Nash stayed. The 21-year-old activist had insisted on her arrest with the other blacks, and once in jail, refused bail.
In spring 1960, nearly two hundred students involved with the nationwide sit-in movement arrived in Raleigh, North Carolina for an organizing conference. There, the SCLC (Southern Christian Leadership Conference), at Ella Baker's request, sponsored the students' meeting on April 15. But some within the SCLC, including Baker herself, advised the students to remain independent and follow their own principles. Accordingly, in April 1960 Nash co-founded the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC - pronounced "snick"),independent of any adult organizations, and quit school to lead its direct action wing. In the coming years, organizations such as CORE andSCLC would try to recruit SNCC as their own student wing, with SNCC always resisting the invitations. The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee would go on to be involved with some of the most important campaigns of the civil rights era, adding a fresh and active youth voice to the movement.
In early 1961, Nash and ten fellow students were put under arrest in Rock Hill, South Carolina for protesting segregation. Once jailed, they would not accept the chance for bail. These dramatic events began to bring light to the fight for racial justice that was beginning to emerge. It also highlighted the idea of "jail, no bail", which was utilized by many other civil rights activists as the fight for rights progressed.
Originally fearful of jail, Nash was arrested dozens of times for her activities. She spent 30 days in a South Carolina jail after protesting segregation in Rock Hill in February 1961. In 1962, although she was four months pregnant with her daughter Sherri, she faced a two-year prison sentence in Mississippi for contributing to the delinquency of minors whom she had encouraged to become Freedom Riders and ride on the buses. Despite her pregnancy, she was ready to serve her time with the possibility of her daughter being born in jail. Nash took the weight of this possibility seriously, spending two days praying and meditating before coming to a decision and penning an open letter. "I believe that if I go to jail now, it may help hasten that day when my child and all children will be free — not only on the day of their birth but for all their lives." She was sentenced to 10 days in jail in Jackson, Mississippi, "where she spent her time there washing her only set of clothing in the sink during the day and listening to cockroaches skitter overhead at night."
Nash would go on to serve many roles for the SCLC from 1961–1965 while it was under Martin Luther King Jr. Though years later, Nash is clear about how she saw herself in relation to King, stating "I never considered Dr. King my leader. I always considered myself at his side and I considered him at my side. I was going to do what the spirit told me to do. So If I had a leader, that was my leader." She later cut ties with the SCLC, questioning their leadership structure, including their male- and clergy-dominated ranks. She would also split from SNCC in 1965 when their directives changed under Stokley Carmichael's leadership, taking particular issue with the organization's departure from the founding pillar of nonviolence.
"We will not stop. There is only one outcome," stated Diane Nash, referring to the 1961 CORE Freedom Riders. Designed to challenge state segregation of interstate buses and facilities, the project was suspended by CORE after a bus was firebombed and several riders were severely injured in attacks by a mob in Birmingham, Alabama. Nash called on Fisk University and other college students to fill buses to keep the Freedom Rides going. They traveled to the South to challenge the states. The Nashville students, encouraged by Nash, promptly decided to finish the trip that had been suspended at Birmingham. New Orleans Congress of Racial Equality, the Nashville students, and Nash were committed, ready, and willing. "It was clear to me that if we allowed the Freedom Ride to stop at that point, just after so much violence had been inflicted, the message would have been sent that all you have to do to stop a nonviolent campaign is inflict massive violence," says Nash. Nash took over responsibility for the Freedom Rides and worked to recruit Riders, act as media spokesperson, and garner the support of the government and other Movement leaders. Coordinating from Nashville, she led the Freedom Riders from Birmingham, Alabama to Jackson, Mississippi, where CORE Field Secretary Tom Gaither coordinated a massive program on the ground.
After the severe attacks, CORE's Executive Director James Farmer Jr. a veteran of CORE's original 1949 Freedom Rides, was hesitant to continue them. Nash talked with the students of the Nashville Student Movement and argued that, "We can't let them stop us with violence. If we do, the movement is dead." Nash remained adamant that they not send a message to the public that civil rights efforts could be stopped with violence. As the violence escalated and bus drivers began to refuse service to the Riders due to the dangers, Attorney General Robert Kennedy became involved and worked to keep the Rides going. Kennedy called the Alabama governor and the Greyhound bus company to implore them to allow the Rides to continue. Kennedy insisted that his special assistant John Seigenthaler travel to Alabama to get directly involved in the matter. Seigenthaler informed the reluctant Alabama governor that it was the government's duty to protect these citizens during the Freedom Rides. Nash spoke with Seigenthaler on the phone, and Seigenthaler warned her that the Freedom Rides could result in death and violence for participants. She responded, "We know someone will be killed, but we cannot let violence overcome nonviolence." Nash explained to Seigenthaler that she and other students had already signed their wills. John Lewis, who had just returned from the Freedom Ride, agreed to continue it, as did other students. A contingent of activists from New Orleans CORE also participated. They continued the action to a successful conclusion six months later.
When Nash was bringing a batch of students to Birmingham to continue the Ride, she telephoned Birmingham activist Fred Shuttlesworth to inform him. He responded to her sternly: "Young lady, do you know that the Freedom Riders were almost killed here?" Nash assured him that she did and that that would not stop her from continuing the ride. After gathering the final list of Riders, she placed a phone call to Shuttlesworth. They knew their phone line had been tapped by local police, so they worked out a set a of coded messages related to, of all things, poultry. For instance, "roosters" were substituted for male Freedom Riders, "hens" for female Riders and so on. When Nash called Shuttlesworth again on Wednesday morning to tell him "The chickens are boxed," he knew that the Freedom Riders were on their way.
On May 20, 1961, the Riders left Birmingham for Montgomery with the promise of protection from the federal government, including police escorts and planes flying overhead. After about 40 miles, all signs of protection disappeared, and the Riders were subjected to a violent, angry mob armed with makeshift weapons such as pipes and bricks. Both white and black Riders were injured by the mob, including special assistant John Seigenthaler who exited his car to help one of the female Riders who was being beaten. When all the other Riders had left the bus terminal, five of the female Riders phoned Shuttlesworth, who relayed their whereabouts to Nash. Others called Nash directly, to inform her of the chaotic situation that had occurred. Fearing that all the riders were subject to arrest, Nash advised them to stay out of sight from the police, but this was compromised by Wilbur and Hermann, who had called the police after fleeing from the terminal area.
On May 21, 1961, Martin Luther King Jr. arrived at the First Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama. King had caused tension between himself and the Freedom Riders, Nash included, due to his refusal to participate in the Rides. Diane Nash was present at the First Baptist Church that night and is credited with playing a key role in getting King to come and speak in support of the Freedom Riders. More than 1,500 citizens were trapped inside the church overnight as violence raged outside. Martial law had to be declared by Alabama Governor John Patterson to finally bring an end to the mob. Gov. Patterson had been highly criticized by many within the movement for his unwillingness to support and protect the Riders. This was the first time he and the state of Alabama had moved to protect the movement. King preached to the crowd inside the church while teargas seeped in from outside, telling them that they would "remain calm" and "continue to stand up for what we know is right."
In 1963 President John F. Kennedy appointed Nash to a national committee to prepare civil rights legislation. Eventually his proposed bill was passed as the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
Shocked by the 1963 church bombing in Birmingham that killed four young girls, Nash and James Bevel committed to raising a nonviolent army in Alabama. Their goal was the vote for every black adult in Alabama, a radical proposition at the time. Alabama and other southern states had effectively excluded blacks from the political system since disenfranchising them at the turn of the century. After funerals for the girls in Birmingham, Nash confronted SCLCleadership with their proposal. She was rebuffed, but continued to advocate this "revolutionary" nonviolent blueprint.
Together with SCLC, Nash and Bevel eventually implemented the Selma to Montgomery marches, a series of protests for voting rights in Alabama in early 1965. They were initiated and organized by James Bevel, who was running SCLC's Selma Voting Rights Movement. Marchers crossed the Pettus Bridge on their way to the state capital of Montgomery, but after they left the city limits, they were attacked by county police and Alabama state troopers armed with clubs and tear gas, determined to break up the peaceful march. John Lewis, who had knelt to pray, had his skull fractured. The images were broadcast over national television, shocking the nation. Soon after this, President Lyndon Johnson publicly announced that it was "wrong--deadly wrong--to deny any of your fellow Americans the right to vote in this country." The initiative culminated in passage by Congress of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, which authorized the federal government to oversee and enforce the constitutional right to vote, with mechanisms to assess state compliance and require changes to enable registration and voting.
In 1965, SCLC gave its highest award, the Rosa Parks Award, to Diane Nash and James Bevel for their leadership in initiating and organizing the Alabama Project and the Selma Voting Rights Movement.
During the civil rights era and shortly after, many of the male leaders received most of the recognition for its successes. As the civil rights era has been studied by historians, Nash's contributions have been more fully recognized.
In 1995 historian David Halberstam described Nash as "…bright, focused, utterly fearless, with an unerring instinct for the correct tactical move at each increment of the crisis; as a leader, her instincts had been flawless, and she was the kind of person who pushed those around her to be at their best, or be gone from the movement."
Nash is featured in the award-winning documentary film series Eyes on the Prize (2011), the PBS American Experience documentary on the Freedom Riders, based on the history of the same name. Nash is also credited with her work in David Halberstam's book The Children, as well as Diane Nash: The Fire of the Civil Rights Movement.
In addition, she has received the Distinguished American Award from the John F. Kennedy Library and Foundation (2003), the LBJ Award for Leadership in Civil Rights from the Lyndon Baines Johnson Library and Museum (2004), and the Freedom Award from the National Civil Rights Museum (2008).
Nash has continued to believe in the power of nonviolent action to solve conflicts. In an interview with Theresa Anderson she said,
"Violence needs to be addressed. I think the Civil Rights Movement has demonstrated how to resolve human conflicts. I think it's crazy when two countries have problems with each other and one says 'Let's bomb them, kill them, go fight.' If we have a problem with another country I would like to see consideration instead of an automatic tendency to go to war. Let's hear their side, consider our side, and look at what is logical and reasonable. Let's look at what serves the best interests of the people and see if we can negotiate solutions, more sane solutions."