When South Side-born Diane Nash was 21, she organized the first of many lunch counter sit-ins at a segregated Nashville eatery. Salt, sugar and hot coffee were thrown on the young woman as she patiently and peacefully waited to be served with her peers.
It was 1960, and Nash was making history as a young Black activist spearheading the Nashville Student Movement. She would go on to be thrown in jail, and she coordinated the Freedom Riders’ journey through Nashville. She worked with President John F. Kennedy to create the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and became a leading civil rights activist.
The Chicagoan’s name is rarely recognized among well-known Black activists. But a new children’s picture book aims to spotlight Nash and her ability to always lead with love.
“Love Is Loud,” written by Sandra Neil Wallace and illustrated by Bryan Collier, is on sale Jan. 10.
Wallace heard about Nash a decade ago while researching a book on Jonathan Daniels, a voting rights activist. She learned Nash helped organize Selma’s voting marches and worked with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference.
Collaboration with illustrator Collier brought Nash up again more recently.
“I write about people who break barriers and really change the world, but are hidden in history,” Wallace told the Sun-Times. “Diane is one of the most influential and effective leaders of the civil rights movement … yet most people don’t know who she is. So when Bryan and I were talking about her, we were really surprised that young readers have access to so many books about Dr. King and John Lewis, which is great, but they don’t have access to any books on Diane Nash.”
Nash is now 84 and resides in Chicago. For years she has refused interviews, Wallace said, so she had no involvement in the picture book. Instead, Wallace and Collier pulled photographs and pieced together a timeline of Nash’s life and her statements.
“It speaks to just the fact that she has said so much, and her actions speak volumes,” Wallace said of Nash’s resistance to conducting interviews nowadays. “She’s really leaving us with a template on how to create change and be our own leaders.”
“Love Is Loud” is the first picture book on Nash, Wallace said. She hopes there will be more.
Collier’s illustrations, created with watercolor and collages, follow a warm color palette influenced by the bus Rosa Parks refused to move to the back of. An outfit Nash wears in the book — a green shirt tucked underneath a yellow sweater — mirrors the bus.
“I just tried to make these connections visually to sort of to anchor the book,” Collier said of drawing inspiration from the bus.
The illustrator modeled his depiction of Nash after his 19-year-old daughter, Haley, who posed for the drawings. He just had to change her eye color to match Nash’s piercing green eyes.
Throughout the book, Nash is portrayed as the largest figure on every page she’s on, and is in the forefront of every scene she’s in. This is deliberate, Collier said, especially given that Nash battled both gender and racial discrimination.
“It’s intentional to give her that heroic stature,” he said. “That’s what you do to the hero. That’s what you do to the one that’s making it leading the charge, you give her the highest status on the page.”
Nash was born in 1938, to parents who emphasized the importance of love, the book states. She went to Hyde Park High School and didn’t experience the realities of segregation until she moved to Tennessee for college.
“[Chicagoans] have a way of raising their children. The things that they see early on prepare [them] for another level later on,” Collier said. “I think Chicago’s instrumental in her upbringing as well.”
The colorful, warm pages depict Nash’s journey once she “feels the sting of segregation,” the book says.
That’s when she indignantly chooses to lead sit-ins at a local lunch counter, ignoring the jeers and abuse from workers and customers. She led peaceful marches, proving “love is fierce.”
She was a “strategic” activist, Collier noted. She had an inherent ability to lead her peers.
A year after Nash’s efforts, Nashville lunch counters were integrated.
“The leaders of the nonviolent movement really fought against a belief system that was rooted in hatred and division,” Wallace said. “They stood up to that hatred with peaceful, powerful actions that caused change, while not hating the individuals who perpetuated segregation.”
For coordinating student protests, Nash was sent to jail — while six months pregnant. Despite her concerns for her baby, she was defiant in her belief that she was standing up for what was right.
After helping pass the Voting Rights Act and other legislation, Nash traveled the country speaking in favor of love. She received many awards dedicated to her selflessness, including the Rosa Parks Award and the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
“Diane was the type of leader who led without ego,” Wallace said. “So it wasn’t necessarily crucial for her to get the spotlight; her actions caused her to get the spotlight. I think that’s a really important distinction.”
Mariah Rush is a staff reporter at the Chicago Sun-Times via Report for America, a not-for-profit journalism program that aims to bolster the paper’s coverage of communities on the South and West sides.