My Encounter with a Living Legend

At DePaul University, years ago, I listened to students organizing against the Gulf War. It was standing room only, which was fine with me. The students were leading and I, by then an administrator at the University of Illinois at Chicago, wanted mostly to audit the meeting so that I could support them and eventually attend the demonstration they were discussing. Another middle-aged woman rushed in from the cold in knit hat and heavy coat and leaned against the wall beside me.

We chatted about the news, the War, and a few other mundane subjects. I marveled at her ability to carry on our conversation while also monitoring what was happening in the meeting.

I introduced myself to her while she kept staring straight ahead. I asked her name. Diane Nash. “You’ve got a terrific namesake.” She turned to me those famous blue eyes and laughed at my joy in recognizing her.

At one point, the students began to debate a suggestion that they support those who wanted to actively confront the police. Diane and I both leapt into the conversation with almost the same words, “No, no, that won’t achieve the end you want.” We looked at each other and laughed.

“We sound like mothers,” I muttered. Then we went on to talk about our children.

For those who don’t know, Diane Nash led the Nashville lunch counter sit-ins, was a Freedom Rider coordinator, cofounded the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee which led to the successful voting rights campaign and the Voting Rights act, and made many more contributions. Maybe the most impressive thing she did was go to jail in Mississippi when she was more than four months pregnant, refusing bail because she and others believed that to pay the bail would be to agree to their arrest and imprisonment for exercising what should have been their basic rights. She said she did it so that all children could be free. She did so much more.

I cherish that conversation, and, especially, the moment she turned on me those famous blue eyes. I knew she had taken some guff about being mixed blood, like me. She was once a beauty queen, and she was still lovely when I met her many years later. She was a woman acknowledged in the Movement to be of considerable substance, whose counsel was sought about some of the most important events in our nation’s history.

She became a legend, and yet here she was, leaping into current events to lend a hand.

May she be forever blessed.

Diane Nash in her youth.
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