Civil Rights leader Diane Nash lectures on agapic energy, social justice

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Civil Rights leader Diane Nash lectures on agapic energy, social justice. Photo by Lucy Wimmer (C’20).

By Colton Williams, Junior Editor

Diane Nash, a prominent figure of the Civil Rights Movement, recently spoke at Sewanee, giving a lecture called “The Movements of the ‘60s: A Legacy for Today.” Nash was a co-founder of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and a Freedom Rider, who participated and organized sit-ins and boycotts in Nashville, and demonstrated against the Vietnam War.

Dr. Jody Allen, Visiting Assistant Professor of History, began the lecture, saying she had been part of the event planning for a long time, and that Nash’s appearance was the “product of a lot of people’s hard work.” Allen gave thanks to the many campus groups that made the lecture possible, with special acknowledgment to Dr. Woody Register, director of the Sewanee Project on Slavery, Race, and Reconciliation.

Chandler Davenport (C’19) then introduced Nash, discussing her life and achievements, and noted especially her “fearlessness, tenacity, and resilience.”

As Nash took the podium to a standing ovation, she said she was delighted to be at the University and immediately began telling her story of the struggle for civil rights. Nash grew up in Chicago, and she recounted her time facing de jure segregation for the first time as a young student at Fisk University in Nashville.

“I felt outraged,” Nash said. “By obeying segregation rules I felt like I was agreeing with it.” The segregation she saw in Nashville, such as African-Americans sitting on street corners with their lunch because they were barred from eating in the restaurants, was “degrading and humiliating.” She felt compelled to make change.

Nash was integral in the civil rights movement and the creation of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, helping to facilitate the successful nonviolent demonstrations against segregation in Nashville. However, she emphasized that nonviolence itself isn’t a strategy. Instead, the movement used “agapic energy,” a term which encompasses more than just the absence of violence.

“Now, some of you might be thinking, ‘I’ve never heard of that,’ and I am not surprised… because I made it up,” Nash said, inspiring laughter from the audience.

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Civil Rights leader Diane Nash alongside Dr. Register, Dr. Berner, and Dr. Allen. Photo by Lucy Wimmer (C’20).

Agapic energy, which Nash coined from the Greek agape, meaning brotherly love, is the idea that people are never the enemy, but rather unjust political and economic systems, racism, sexism, and so forth can all be the enemy. To combat these enemies, it is necessary to love and respect the person espousing the unjust views and attack the attitudes and actions of a person that may feed the injustice.

Central to Nash’s lecture was the ability of people to create their own change. “Oppression always requires the cooperation of the oppressed,” Nash said. “I’m going to say that again: Oppression always requires the cooperation of the oppressed.”

Explaining that people have the power to change unjust systems, Nash said that once blacks in Montgomery, Alabama took matters into their own hands and boycotted the public bus system, there were no more segregated buses in Montgomery, Alabama.

“If the oppressed withdraw their cooperation with the oppressor’s system,” Nash said, “The system will fall.”

This was Nash’s advice to students and young people partaking in the social justice movements of the future. “Agapic energy is applicable to the issues on which you want to work…We must understand that elected officials have not and will not do what is necessary to protect the interests of this country and of American citizens,” Nash said.

“The only way this country will make it through this frightening period, and survive it…is if we citizens take the future of this country into our own hands,” she added.

Nash ended her talk to another standing ovation and answered questions from the crowd before being given a plaque by Allen to commemorate her visit.

Accepting the plaque, Nash smiled and said, “I will never forget Sewanee.”