Kennedy wanted it stopped.
What he didn’t know, but soon discovered, was that Nash — who didn’t respond to requests for an interview — was one of the primary architects and coordinators of an activist campaign whose participants were one-quarter women. As Ray Arsenault, author of “Freedom Riders: 1961 and the Struggle for Racial Justice,” points out, this was a high percentage for the day. Just 14 years earlier, organizers of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE)’s Journey of Reconciliation — what would later be considered one of the very first Freedom Rides — had denied an active role in the journey to the women involved in its planning. Other civil rights groups, particularly those run by older activists such as the Rev. Martin Luther King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), tended to be extremely patriarchal and not exactly progressive about recruiting women to their ranks. Nash, and the other women involved in the Freedom Rides, changed all that.
Paving the way
The most iconic images and beloved texts from the 20th-century American civil rights struggle tend to be of and by men. King. John Lewis. Ralph Abernathy. Malcolm X. But the story of institutional racism, segregation and overt or perceived threats of violence — and the efforts to combat them — is, in many ways, the story of women. And their efforts, directly and indirectly, paved the way for the modern feminist movement.
As Danielle McGuire explains in her powerful 2010 book, “At the Dark End of the Street,” Southern black women were under constant threat of sexual assault by white males; activists who investigated and publicized these crimes and tactics (including Rosa Parks, who would become famous for refusing to give up her seat on an Alabama bus) in many ways jump-started the modern civil rights movement. As for white women, particularly those in the South, they were disempowered in a different but no less effective way: They were considered precious, fragile trophies of the patriarchy who had to be protected from black male sexuality at all costs.
All of this makes the contributions of women to the Freedom Rides that much more extraordinary. Not only were women taking part in the Rides in relatively large numbers, the very notion of womanhood — how it could be abused, threatened and fetishized — was the major subtext of the institutional racism and racialized violence that the Riders were fighting against. (Sex, wrote Swedish sociologist Gunnar Myrdal in 1944, “is the principle around which the whole structure of segregation . . . is organized.”)