Diane Nash grew up in Chicago, Illinois, where she had only heard of the segregation in the South. Nash enrolled at Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee in the late 1950s, and for the first time she was denied rights she had always taken for granted. For example, in downtown Nashville, African Americans could buy things at Woolworth's and other stores, but were not allowed to eat at the lunch counter or get jobs in those same stores.
Frustrated by the legalized segregation she encountered, Nash attended nonviolent workshops led by civil rights leader James Lawson. The workshops, based on the teachings of Indian spiritual leader Mahatma Gandhi, were designed to teach people about peaceful methods of protesting segregation. Nash and other participants took turns role-playing and testing each another to ensure they could withstand violent white resistance without fighting back.
In February of 1960, Nash helped organize the Nashville Student Movement and Nashville's first sit-in. Inspired by a similar demonstration in North Carolina, Nash and a group of black and white students sat down together at an all-white lunch counter, asked for food, and refused to leave when they were denied service. The sit-ins marked an important shift in the Civil Rights movement -- the organization and mobilization of students. Over the next three months, hundreds of Nashville students participated in sit-ins throughout the city. Many of the students were arrested; some were also beaten. On May 10, 1960, Nash's confrontation with Mayor Ben West resulted in the desegregation of Nashville's lunch counters and began the desegregation of other public facilities.
Motivated by success, Nash helped form the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC, pronounced "snick"). SNCC attracted students from across the country to attend nonviolent workshops and participate in demonstrations that put them on the frontlines of the Civil Rights movement.
In the summer of 1961, members of SNCC participated in the Freedom Rides, two interracial bus rides that traveled through the South to test the Supreme Court ruling in Boynton v. Virgina that declared segregation on interstate travel unconstitutional. The Freedom Rides were organized by the Congress for Racial Equality, but after violent attacks against the riders, including a firebomb attack on one bus, threatened to stop the rides, members of SNCC joined the rides. Hundreds of student riders were arrested, and some were beaten, but in September 1961, the Interstate Commerce Commission officially banned segregation in all facilities under its control.
In 1963, President John F. Kennedy appointed Nash to a committee to help draft the Civil Rights Act of 1964. At the same time, Nash and SNCC launched the voting rights campaign in Selma, Alabama to address white resistance to registering black voters. SNCC's campaign informed and encouraged African Americans regarding their right to vote, and set the stage for the Voting Rights Act of 1965.