On Wednesday, Feb. 21, legendary civil rights activist Diane Nash addressed members of the Wheaton College community on how to effectively strive for social justice in the modern age. The William Osborne Society was largely responsible for organizing Nash’s visit to Wheaton, from which she has received an honorary degree. Faculty, staff, and students filled Coray gym to hear Nash speak on her career as an activist in the Civil Rights Movement beginning in the early 1960s. She introduced students to the concept of “agapic energy,” a phrase she coined from the greek word “Agape,” meaning brotherly love. Nash describes the concept as “the power produced by love of humankind.”
“I’m glad the event happened because it’s very important to have these types of discussions about race on Wheaton’s campus,” said junior Jonavan Huggins. “I think by having her specifically, a civil rights leader, and not just a pastor from today but someone with a lot of wisdom and experience, students are able to get inspired and try to make a difference.”
The recipient of numerous awards, including the Rosa Parks Award from the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) and the Distinguished American Award from the John F. Kennedy Foundation, Nash is significant figure in civil rights history. She played a key role in organizing many of the sit-ins which helped desegregate lunch counters, acted as a primary leader in the Selma Voting Rights Movement and founded the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC).
SNCC is recognized as one of the most influential organizations in the Civil Rights Movement, beginning as an effort to involve young blacks in activism efforts and eventually playing a critical role in major events such as the freedom rides, the 1963 March on Washington and the 1964 “freedom summer” drive for voter registration among Southern blacks.
“I’d like for you to gain a better understanding of the philosophy on which the civil rights movement was based,” Nash told the audience at the beginning of her presentation. In her talk, Nash clarified the difference between a protest and “agapic action.”
Arguing that “nonviolence” is a term of neutrality which frames a movement in terms of what it is not, Nash advocated instead for the term “agapic energy,” instructing the audience to focus on using their righteous anger for positive action. Acknowledging that anger is a natural byproduct of injustice, Nash said that channeling that anger towards injustice produces more positive results than suppressing it.
According to Nash, ideas, however good, always require action. She reminded listeners that oppression is a two-way street: the the oppressed allow the actions of the oppressor. Nash encouraged — and demonstrated through examples from her own career — that those seeking change should focus their righteous anger towards fighting injustice, rather than fighting those who hate them. “Love and respect the person while you attack the attitudes and actions,” she told the crowd.
After the talk, students commented on the relevance of Nash’s words to Wheaton’s campus. “I would say that Wheaton’s campus is in need of a change in the racial department, I guess, to have a more comfortable environment where we can talk about these things,” Huggins said. “It needs to become more of a committed effort between both sides, and so having events like this allows us to have questions and answers in order to grow closer together in … an environment that’s a little smaller for people to ask questions, talk about people and I guess spark interest or discussions about these things.”
“I thought it was super inspiring,” junior Hope Wood said. “Definitely made me think about what we’re not doing and the ways that we’re being complacent today. Definitely want to go sit down in a quiet place and think about how I want society to look.”