Reflections on Courage; Goodwin College Celebrates Diane Nash and the Freedom Riders
As they beheld a living Civil Rights legend on Tuesday, many students at Goodwin College and the Connecticut River Academy were surprised to learn that Diane Nash was just about their age when she began her nonviolent struggle against racism and segregation.
More than 50 years after being an organizer for the Freedom Riders, Nash visited the College to inspire new generations of students to fight against new forms of injustice and take inspiration from her legacy.
“Oppression always requires the cooperation of the oppressed,” Nash said.
Goodwin welcomed Nash to the River Campus to share her story. She spoke before a full Auditorium of not only Goodwin students, faculty, and staff, but also the entire Connecticut River Academy. Several people from the East Hartford community and beyond also attended.
In all, more than 330 Connecticut River Academy students were present to hear Nash speak. The Academy is located on the Goodwin River Campus and the institutions share resources and programming to benefit all students.
The presentation began with footage from the PBS documentary on the Freedom Riders, who in 1961 embarked on journeys they knew would be dangerous and controversial. Participants, including many from Fisk University in Nashville, Tenn., would board buses and head south to challenge racial segregation at restaurants, lunch counters, and other facilities.
Nash was the student coordinator for the Nashville group, which left for Alabama in May of 1961. Nash recalled that the students knew what faced them – violence, angry mobs, arrests, and perhaps even death – but that they were prepared to not respond violently. In fact, each member had signed their own wills before leaving.
“I don’t know how I did it,” she said. “I don’t know how we did what we did at our age.”
Nash’s responsibility as organizer was to coordinate with the press, recruit new participants, and to serve as the liaison between the group and the US Department of Justice. She was in her early 20s at the time.
Their first destination was Birmingham, one the most segregated cities in the country. They would continue onto Montgomery, where they were trapped inside a church with 1,500 supporters, including Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. The National Guard was eventually called to disperse the angry white mobs outside, which had burned cars in an attempt to intimidate those inside the church.
Through her experiences as an activist, Nash said she was roughed up and jailed, but otherwise emerged unscathed. The Freedom Rides were successful in contributing to raising awareness of the deep racism and segregation of the South and helped draw the Kennedy administration into pushing for Civil Rights for all Americans.
In her remarks on Tuesday, Nash urged the students in attendance not to rely on elected officials to enact change, but to use their own voices. The only person someone can truly change is themself, she said, and freedom is a constant struggle. She challenged the students to step up and meet the challenges that their generation faces.
After speaking, Nash participated in a panel discussion with Goodwin students and faculty. Marlon Jengelly, a student in Goodwin’s Men of Vision in Education (MOVE) program, said that his generation does have a responsibility of its own.
“It’s our duty to step into your shoes and continue what you started,” Jengelly said.
Ciarah Cox, a student in MOVE’s counterpart program, Women Invested in Securing an Education (WISE), said her generation couldn’t afford to take things like the struggle for civil rights for granted.
“We have our own problems in our generation that we need to take care of,” Cox said.
Nash’s visit marked the unofficial beginning of Goodwin’s Black History Month Celebration, which gets underway on Thursday, Jan. 31, at 11 a.m. in the College Auditorium. This year’s theme is “Tipping Points,” and throughout the month of February, Goodwin will be hosting forums and events that celebrate pivotal moments in history, including the 150th anniversary of President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation and the 50th anniversary of Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech.