Bernard Lafayette figured prominently in history that unfolded when I was still a schoolboy. I wanted to retell his story and, in the process, I sent a draft of the chapter to Dr. Lafayette. He telephoned me and suddenly history had a voice, a gentle voice that conveyed his astonishing strength and courage in a compelling tone of love. Just his voice expressed so much of the essence of the civil rights movement.
Bernard Lafayette (b. 1940)
Nonviolence is how to respond to violence and turn it into a positive force.
Bernard Lafayette moved to Selma, Alabama, intent on organizing African-Americans to register to vote in Dallas County. He brought a reputation as a veteran of the Freedom Rides, a reputation that caused many intimidated men and women to steer clear. Even the black principal of the high school threatened to call the sheriff if Lafayette tried to recruit school kids for the cause. But Lafayette kept a low profile. He met people one-on-one, then finally pulled together some small groups to talk about citizenship. He worked slowly and quietly, eventually building up a local movement that was strong enough to become one of the turning points in the civil rights struggle. Quiet organizing by Lafayette made the historic victory possible.
Lafayette was born in Florida, but two years of living in Philadelphia exposed him to life in a racially integrated society. He enrolled in the American Baptist Theological Seminary in Nashville. There he met James Lawson and was recruited into the group of students Lawson was training to desegregate Nashville. He also took classes at the Highlander Folk School, learning Gandhian nonviolence. The success of the Nashville sit-ins was such a watershed that Lafayette and other young leaders moved from there into struggles nationwide. Lafayette joined student leaders from across the South to form the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), which became a leading group of civil rights activists.
In 1961 Lafayette was part of the group from Nashville who continued the Freedom Ride to desegregate interstate transportation. The initial Freedom Riders had been beaten and arrested and their bus had been burned. As Lafayette considered his own decision to join the Freedom Ride, he talked things through with his friend and fellow student, Joe Carter, at American Baptist Theological Seminary.
“Are you prepared to die?” Carter, who had already decided to go, asked Lafayette. “There’ll be no protection, we’ll be on our own.”
Lafayette decided to take the risk. Like other riders, he signed a will before heading to Alabama. This second wave of riders, including John Lewis and James Lawson, picked up the buses in Birmingham, Alabama. In Montgomery the riders were attacked.
The police gave the Ku Klux Klan 15 minutes between the arrival of the bus and the arrival of the police to severely beat the riders. In Jackson, Mississippi, all the riders were arrested when they tried to desegregate the bus station waiting room. They spent time in the Jackson Jail, and then were sent to the notorious Mississippi penitentiary known as Parcham Farm. It was one of 27 times Lafayette ended up in jail.
After that harrowing experience, Lafayette’s skills as an organizer clearly emerged. He and James Bevel left Parchman and began organizing back in Jackson, where they were earlier arrested. They went street by street through the black community trying to recruit young people as activists. Lafayette would make the case for joining, while Bevel would give reasons not to get involved—a tactic that made the idea more appealing for young people eager to try their wings. After evening training sessions, they would require the young people to come back at 6 a.m. to see how serious they really were. Lafayette and Bevel organized a series of protests with 42 young recruits who joined them in an effort to desegregate the Jackson bus terminal. Lafayette said it was the cheapest way to take action because they didn’t need to buy bus tickets. They all ended up in jail, but now the young people of Jackson were mobilized for the movement.
Lafayette then went to Selma, Alabama, as an SNCC organizer. It was the heart of the so-called “Black Belt,” an area controlled by the powerful White Citizens Council. Even before he and his wife moved into a local hotel, U.S. Justice Department officials were warning them to leave because of threatened violence. Lafayette stayed and studied the politics of the area and the history of lynching in that county. He then went into the small towns around Selma and into Selma’s black neighborhoods trying to mobilize voter registration. When people came to the meetings Lafayette organized, he encouraged them to share their own experiences. Soon, people were releasing emotions long bottled up by fear.
When a local African-American leader who had supported their effort died, Lafayette called for a mass meeting to honor the man. Sheriff Jim Clark brought deputized white citizens to intimidate the crowd. Many of Clark’s men were armed with bats that had steel rods inserted in the middle for maximum damage. First, Clark’s men came into the meeting and listened to the eulogies, then they smashed cars with their bats on the way out. Lafayette knew that this violence would clarify the battle lines and challenge residents to take a stand.
On June 12, 1963, the same night Medgar Evers of the NAACP was assassinated in Mississippi, a white thug severely beat Lafayette. As he was about to lose consciousness, a neighbor came out with a shotgun. Despite the peril he faced, Lafayette pleaded for the man not to shoot the attacker. The FBI later said that the attack was part of a three-state conspiracy to murder civil rights leaders. But Lafayette did not back down. The day after the beating, still wearing his bloody shirt and with his face bruised and swollen, Lafayette went downtown. A black lawyer encouraged him to go home, but Lafayette said, “This is the symbol we need.” He made himself visible in the community, shaming local leaders who had been timid to take greater risks themselves.
Lafayette continued organizing and holding mass meetings. In 1965, he was among the civil rights leaders who decided to make Selma a focus for the struggle for voting rights. It was the toughest town in Alabama, but Lafayette’s organizing had laid a foundation in the African-American community. In early March, 1965, a march was launched from Selma to Montgomery, although that first march did not reach its goal. The crowd was halted at the Pettus Bridge, where police charged and beat marchers—an event later known as Bloody Sunday. Martin Luther King, Jr. came to Selma for a second march, which voluntarily stopped at the Pettus Bridge to avoid violence. A third march that same month finally reached its goal, riding on a wave of national revulsion at the violence unleashed by Southern whites. A political tide had turned. President Johnson presented what became the Voting Rights Act of 1965 to Congress between the second and third marches. With momentum from the protests, the bill passed and Johnson was able to sign it into law later that year.
In 1966, the scene shifted to Chicago, where Lafayette agreed to help the American Friends Service Committee organize for open housing and to prevent lead poisoning, a campaign called “End Slums.” Lafayette also was invited by King to direct a national Poor People’s Campaign, which would culminate in a march on Washington in 1968. However, during their organizing efforts, Dr. King visited Memphis and was killed in April, 1968. Stunned and grieving, Lafayette continued his work on the Washington campaign, which ended when 50,000 people set up the Resurrection City shantytown on the Mall. This campaign had failed to achieve its goal: A Bill of Economic Rights.
After the death of King and the dissolution of the Poor People’s Campaign, Lafayette left his life of full-time activism to focus on his education. He eventually earned a doctorate from Harvard University with a thesis on the teaching of nonviolence in a regular college curriculum. Lafayette then worked in various schools, including an appointment as principal of Tuskegee High School in Alabama. There, the soft-spoken, nonviolent Lafayette encountered a group of teens who had moved from a tough urban setting in the North and brought gang culture with them into the South.
They expected this principal would be easy prey. Instead, Lafayette cleaned up the school’s culture. He didn’t break up the gangs, recognizing the legitimate need of young people to be together in groups. Instead, he transformed the gangs into social clubs. He gave them tasks like taking toys to hospitalized children and cleaning up yards for elderly widows and taught them how to repair windows—so the gangs began protecting property rather than vandalizing it. He even took students on a re-enactment of the Selma-to-Montgomery march. It was one of his favorite jobs.
Lafayette returned to American Baptist Theological Seminary in Nashville as vice president in 1987 and then in 1992 was installed as president. He also became a Senior Fellow for the Center for Nonviolence and Peace Studies at the University of Rhode Island. There he taught the nonviolent principles and methods he’d hammered out in the civil rights movement.
Lafayette then shifted to Emory University where he is the Distinguished Senior Scholar in Residence, but he has never lived in an ivory tower. He continues to work with students, most recently in the Chicago schools where he is seeking to build the beloved community that King envisioned. He helps older children develop mentoring relationships with younger ones, bringing out what is best in the students. He also has engaged in international peacemaking, especially in the delta region of Nigeria, where conflict flares over oil development. Lafayette works with a program that exchanges insurgents’ guns for jobs. The training begins with nonviolence, and then moves on to job training. Overall, this process brings some of the economic benefits from the oil companies to the local people, which is a key to ending insurgency. Lafayette trains people from the delta to become trainers themselves, which empowers the community, multiplies the impact, and spreads community transformation.
What Bernard Lafayette learned years earlier in Nashville sit-ins, Mississippi bus stations and Selma voter registration drives, he has taught to new generations facing new challenges in new settings. As he links lives around the world, the beloved community becomes more of a reality.
Meet more peacemakers like Bernard Lafayette
This profile on Bernard Lafayette comes from the pages of my book, Blessed are the Peacemakers. Blessed are the Peacemakers is one of the three books that inspired this website. Learn more about Daniel Buttry’s series of books on global peacemakers.