On May 14, 1964, KKK members firebombed a Freedom Rider bus in Anniston, Alabama, intending to burn to death everyone inside. Both Alabama Governor John Patterson and Birmingham Police Chief Bull Connor declared that they would not protect the Freedom Riders from violence.
Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy responded by sending John Siegenthaler, his assistant, to ensure that the Freedom Riders made it safely from Birmingham to New Orleans after the firebombing.
In an historic telephone conversation on May 16, 1964, Siegenthaler, with all the power of his position, commanded Nash and other Freedom Riders to end the bus rides in order to prevent loss of life. Siegenthaler recalls the conversation with Nash like this:
You know that spiritual—“like a tree standing by the water, I will not be moved.” She would not be moved. And…soon I was shouting, Young woman do you understand what you are doing? Do you understand that you’re gonna get somebody killed?
After a pause, Diane Nash replied to Siegenthaler:
Sir, you should know, we all signed our last wills and testaments last night before they left [on the bus for Birmingham]. We know someone will be killed. But we cannot let violence overcome non-violence.
Siegenthaler concludes: “That is virtually a direct quote of the words that came out of that child’s mouth. Here I am, an official of the United States government, representing the President and the Attorney General, talking to a student at Fisk University. And she in a very quiet but strong way gave me a lecture.”
It is a lecture that every American should know. Diane Nash teaches how freedom in the fullest sense is rooted in nonviolent love and responsibility. Freedom is not primarily about individual choice or the right to possess anything. More importantly, Diane Nash and the Freedom Riders witness to a nonviolent love and responsibility concerned for the good of all others in their time and for generations yet to come.
Freedom Riders risked their lives to create the conditions for the possibility of true freedom: the full human flourishing of all Americans. Only when we join together as a people to ensure the full human thriving of every individual will we realize freedom. That is a vision and practice worth the risk and donation of our lives.