Dr. Bernard Lafayette shared his rich experience, some of which is included in his book “In Peace and Freedom: My Journey in Selma,” during the Feb. 11 Learning Lunch at the History Museum of Mobile.
Lafayette spoke of the birth of the modern Civil Rights movement. As youths, fellow students Diane Nash, James Bevel, John Lewis and Bernard Lafayette at American Baptist College Nashville, Tennessee were able to learn direct nonviolent techniques from Rev. James Larson and the Highlander Folk School. Ella Baker organized a student meeting at Shaw University where Lafayette and fellow members of the Nashville Student Movement took leadership roles, forming the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and going on to work together on Freedom Rides. Lafayette worked with the American Friends Service Committee testing nonviolent methods in Chicago in 1963.
Sharing news of the continued good health of James Lowry in California and praising Mobile’s ongoing progress with civil rights, Lafayette said he resolved at age 7 after a streetcar insult that he would dedicate his life’s work to insuring his grandmother could experience respect as a human being.
After being beaten in Montgomery as a Freedom Rider and spending 40 days in Mississippi’s infamous Parchman Prison, Lafayette chose to pursue voter registration work in Selma. He was warned the work was difficult because the “black folks are too scared and the whites were too mean.”
He joined the efforts of Amelia Boynton and her husband Sam that was rooted in the 1930s. Lafayette reported that when the Sam was aroused from his deathbed in 1963, he would call out, “are you registered to vote?”
African-Americans were scared for a good reason — one the writer’s privilege at the time caused him to overlook — retaliation. The exact words above were repeated in a recent NPR interview by Deborah Elliott:
BENNIE LEE TUCKER: We started knocking on doors. A lot of people was afraid. No, I’m not going to get in that mess. They would say, I’m not going to get in that mess ‘cause they knew the repercussion they was going to get from the white.
ELLIOTT: Selma’s white elite used economic intimidation, says Bernard Lafayette.
LAFAYETTE: When a person went to a mass meeting or spoke out and that kind of thing, they would go and fire your mother-in-law from her job.
A spirit of subtle nonviolence underlay Lafayette’s delivery as he shared keys to the movement’s accomplishments. He shared Quaker and Hegelian skills for synthesizing diverse sides of a rigorous argument offering, “one cannot know one country unless you know two countries.”
For example, Dr. King’s Letter from the Birmingham Jail articulates his opponents’ position better than they did. Diane Nash was able to synthesize so articulately that SNCC regularly selected her to be spokesperson. When thanked for sharing the crucial role of women like Nash, Baker, Boynton, Jo Ann Robinson, and Septima Clark, Lafayette stated outright that the movement would have not been successful without women in leadership.
He emphasized the crucial work of Marie Foster who taught African-Americans to fill out voter registration forms, knowing they are not fair. Knowing they (those brave enough to try to register under Jim Crow impediments) are right, even if denied. He related with humor that Dr. King and the male ministers were still meeting after Jo Ann Robinson had already distributed mimeographed flyers announcing the Montgomery Bus Boycott. The underground and perhaps illegal activity was unveiled by a less-than-clever editor on the front page of the paper.
Lafayette also shared several experiences showing how in the movement one needs to plan strategically, as planning was often crucial for maintaining principles of nonviolence.
Marion veterans and farmers angered over the death of Jimmie Lee Jackson at the hands of state troopers. They had to be taught the principles of nonviolence.
Voter registration organizers were arrested for a “conspiracy to overthrow the state of Louisiana.” Following a promise made to insure activists “knew they would not be left alone,” Lafayette traveled to bail out activists.
He also used the Tuskegee Library to read a periodical of the White Citizens’ Council in order to fight their regional system of protest with even better movement organization.
In addition to the role of women in the movement, Lafayette also emphasized the role of white supporters like Father Maurice F. Ouellet. He made special mention of longtime basketball and football coach Elliott Speed, who stopped a massacre by ordering the boys on his team to go home, thus saving the beginning of the Selma movement. Lafayette noted more whites were murdered in the Selma movement than blacks: Rev. James Reeb and Viola Liuzzo were both murdered by a mob and the Klan respectively.
Asked about the status of nonviolence today, Lafayette emphasized the consistency of the leadership. He recalled how sad Dr. King was at violence during the Poor People’s Campaign in Memphis and noted how they had to learn to strategically use police to prevent other police from provoking violence, he called it “splitting the army.” The same rule could have applied in Ferguson, Missouri, after the shooting of Michael Brown.
Noting his participation at a workshop focused on Ferguson with a young white crowd, Lafayette reminded us: Civil rights are human rights. Latin-Americans are Americans. We need a global identity.
Dr. LaFayette was for several years the director of the Center for Nonviolence and Peace Studies at the University of Rhode Island. He is currently distinguished scholar-in-residence at the Candler School of Theology, at Emory University and conducts nonviolent workshops worldwide.
The next Learning Lunch at the History Museum of Mobile is scheduled at noon March 11. CeCe Redmon of the Irish Network USA will speak.
Elliott Lauderdale, Ph.D. is a retired professor of Adult Interdisciplinary Studies at the University of South Alabama. He works with Mobile United organizing community conversations on race relations.