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Diane Nash, a Nashville Civil Rights pioneer, receives the Presidential Medal of Freedom

Diane Nash
Posted at 5:01 PM, Jul 07, 2022
and last updated 2022-07-08 06:39:52-04

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WTVF) — Civil Rights pioneer Diane Nash was among the recipients of the Presidential Medal of Freedom Thursday at the White House. While she was born and raised in Chicago, her lifetime of activism began in Nashville.

Biden Medal of Freedom
President Joe Biden awards the nation's highest civilian honor, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, to Diane Nash at the White House in Washington, Thursday, July 7, 2022. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

The cause to integrate Nashville's lunch counters reached a breaking point the morning of April 19, 1960.

"Their lawyer, Z. Alexander Looby who was also on the city council, house was bombed at 5 o’clock in the morning," said David Ewing, a Nashville historian.

That's when the young Fisk University student decided enough was enough.

"Diane Nash didn’t have a smartphone, and she didn’t have Twitter, but she got 4,000 people to come to the courthouse," said Ewing. "It was a silent march, all you heard was shoe leather."

That is, until Nash asked a simple question that would change everything.

"She asked the Mayor of Nashville — was segregation at the lunch counters right? And Mayor West, from the steps of the courthouse right outside, said it wasn’t," said Ewing.

Within a matter of weeks, Nashville became one of the first major Southern cities to integrate lunch counters. "That effect on that one day did more to bring everyone to equality," said Ewing.

Diane Nash
Civil Rights Pioneer Diane Nash, pictured on April 19, 1960, during a protest calling for the integration of Nashville lunch counters.

But her civil rights journey didn't end there. She helped organize Freedom Rides to Alabama.

In 2007, NewsChannel 5 followed Nash and other Civil Rights heroes as they retraced their ride back to Montgomery, Alabama.

"There seemed to be a commitment on the part of everybody to keep everybody else’s spirits up and overcome fear that people would have," said Nash, during a presentation at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in 2007.

Later in an interview with NewsChannel 5 in 2010, Nash reflected on how, in the face of physical threats, she didn't back down.

"People sometimes say, 'Oh you were so brave,' and they just don’t know. I was scared to death," said Nash.

"But that did not deter Diane. She was a hero, she was fearless, and she’s still fighting to this day," said Ewing.

Her fight finally culminated in receiving the highest honor a civilian can receive: the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

"She is the first to say, the medal is shared with hundreds of thousands of patriotic Americans that have sacrificed so much for the cause of liberty and justice for all. And by the way, she asked me to add that because she didn’t want to take all of the credit herself," said President Biden during the medal ceremony.

There is a plaque at Metro's Historic Courthouse that marks the achievements Nash oversaw during the Nashville Lunch Counter Sit-Ins, but it can easily be overlooked. Thankfully, the same can't be said for an honor as prestigious as the Medal of Freedom.

"It means so much that she can take that bow herself," said Ewing.