The Children in the Fiery Furnace: Organizing for Racial Justice & the Legacy of Diane Nash

The youths in the fiery furnace. From the Catacombs of Priscilla in Rome, late 3rd / early 4th century.

By Marjorie Corbman

In response to a group of clergy that had chastised him for his “extremist” tactics, Martin Luther King reminded them that he was not the inventor of civil disobedience. It was as old, he wrote, as “the refusal of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego to obey the laws of Nebuchadnezzar.”[1]

The reference is from the Book of Daniel. The story goes: the king of Babylon, Nebuchadnezzar, demanded that three young exiles serving in his court—Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego—bow down to a massive golden statue. The young men refused, and so were tied up and thrown into a blazing furnace. To the king’s shock, however, they remained unharmed. Their constraints disappeared and they walked in the fire, free, joined by a mysterious fourth figure with “the appearance of a god” (Daniel 3:25).

King’s recollection of the young exiles, who defied the arbitrary violence of imperial power, gives voice to the theological roots of his resistance. God’s partnership with God’s people, culminating in Christ’s victory over death and evil, means that no political power has final authority over the beloved people’s bodies or spirits: they can walk through the fire.

The youths in the furnace are perhaps best represented not by King, however, but by his fellow organizers in the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). Consistently the most radical and at times the most effective organization in the movement, SNCC was led by twenty-somethings with mostly very little political experience. Today, as an increasing number of people ask where to begin in the fight against racism, the memory of these young activists and their leaps of faith into the struggle for racial justice is an invaluable gift. What lessons can we learn from them?

I’ll offer here one example: that of Diane Nash. In her time with SNCC, Nash was a leader in the successful campaign to desegregate lunch counters in Nashville; coordinated a second Freedom Ride (a racially-mixed group of activists that traveled together on buses in defiance of segregated travel) after brutal violence prevented the completion of the first attempt; and laid the groundwork for the voting rights campaign in Selma. She did all of this before turning twenty-eight.

Diane Nash working on the campaign to desegregate Nashville’s lunch counters. Credit: Gerald Holly, The Tennessean.

The prologue to David Halberstam’s book about the Nashville student leaders, The Children, begins with a reflection on Nash’s transformation. How did a terrified girl from Chicago so quickly become a leader who could stand in a courtroom while six months pregnant and declare that she would not leave Mississippi, even if it meant she would go to prison for over two years? [2]

Nash was, and still is, adamant about what gave her that strength: first, the “extraordinary force” of the Spirit, accessed through meditation, that made her “invincible” in the face of terrifying threats,[3] and second, what she and other members of the movement called the “beloved community.” Drawing upon training in nonviolent philosophy given by her teacher, James Lawson, she argued that seeing “the God” in every person, and the possibility of building communities that reflected this truth, was the path towards dismantling racism.[4]

In a speech to fellow Catholics, Nash urged recognition of how complicity with racism fosters habitual distortions of relationships, thus constructing a “community in sin.”[5] She explained how the physical restrictions of segregation became psychological restrictions on the humanity of both white people and people of color, cultivating fear, dishonesty, ignorance, and “stagnancy of thought and character.”[6]

The opposite of this was what she found in the movement. She described in vivid terms a night in which Freedom Riders gathered in a church as a “mob of thousands” surrounded the building, threatening violence which they knew the police would not prevent. But “in the dire danger in which we were that night, no one expressed anything except concern for freedom and the thought that someday we’ll be free.”[7] The beloved community instilled courage that exposed the lie of the “community in sin.”

What does this dual vision of the beloved community and the community in sin mean for those today who want to organize for racial justice? I’ll share two thoughts.

First, Nash offers a view of organizing which isn’t only about building enough power to obtain results, but instead is primarily a witness to the infinite worth of human beings, derived from God. Given this, for white people especially, recognizing “the God” in those whom our society dehumanizes must mean supporting movements of people of color even when it is inconvenient or uncomfortable. The question of what is realistic is not important compared with the urgency of renouncing racism’s sinful distortions of human nature. “I’m interested now in the people who call for gradualism. The answer, it seems to me, is to stop sinning, and stop now! How long must we wait?”[8]

Second, Nash powerfully demonstrates what it means to offer oneself as a “living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God,” transformed by “the renewing of [one’s] mind” (Romans 12:1-2). For her, this meant wholly identifying with others and with the Spirit that bound the community together. The future in which we place our hope is also the future of a community: the people of God. Witnessing to that future, then, cannot happen alone. The relationships forged in the fight for justice, or so the example of the student activists implies, are more important than perfection of ideas or depth of expertise.

The work starts by joining hands and walking into the fire.

Diane Nash in 2016. Credit: Lacy Atkins, The Tennessean.

Marjorie Corbman is a doctoral candidate in systematic theology in the Department of Theology at Fordham University in New York. Her research focuses on the challenge of Black Power and the Black Muslim movement to Christian theology.


[1] Martin Luther King, Jr., “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” The Christian Century 80 (June 12, 1963), 769.

[2] David Halberstam, The Children (New York: Ballantine Publishing Group, 1998), 3-10.

[3] Diane Nash, “They Are the Ones Who Got Scared,” in Hands on the Freedom Plow: Personal Accounts by Women in SNCC, eds. Faith S. Holseart, Martha Prescod Norman Noonan, Judy Richardson, Betty Garman Robinson, Jean Smith Young, and Dorothy M. Zellner (Urbana, Chicago, and Springfield: University of Illinois Press, 2010), 78, 82.

[4] Nash, “Inside the Sit-Ins and Freedom Rides: Testimony of a Southern Student,” in The New Negro, ed. Mathew H. Ahmann (New York: Fides Publishers, 1961), 44, 59.

[5] Ibid., 45.

[6] Ibid., 49.

[7] Ibid., 55.

[8] Ibid., 57.