| By Traci Cothran |
On Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. day this past week, I was privileged to hear Dr. Bernard Lafayette, Jr. speak at a church in downtown Detroit about the civil rights era and his last days working with MLK. Lafayette is a long-term member of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and the South Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), a Freedom Rider, assistant to King, and he helped form the Selma March. It is amazing to be able to hear directly from this “primary source” – and it piqued my interest to learn more about him.
- In American History magazine, December 2015, Lafayette talked about this turbulent time:
- [Interviewer] What obstacles did black voters face in the South?
- [Lafayette] It was very serious. There were people who were shot down and killed. Bombings took place. That’s why it was very difficult for me to [organize] a mass meeting in Selma; people were afraid that they would get fired from their jobs or that churches would be bombed. It was very repressive, and the federal government didn’t do anything. If people who were trying to register to vote got harassed or killed, it was a state offense. They had to take tests, which were very subjective; the applicants had to read a section of the Constitution and then interpret it for the registrar, and the registrar would say, “You didn’t interpret it correctly.” So they couldn’t register.
- In 2002, Dr. Lafayette was director of the University of Rhode Island’s Center for Nonviolence and Peace Studies. He traveled to Colombia to join a march of solidarity with some 900 people to an embattled village in the Antioquia province, when he was briefly kidnapped by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). Now that is quite a story!
- In the article “Eyes on the Past” from The Chronicle of Higher Education, February 9, 2007, Lafayette recounts how some Freedom Riders in Montgomery escaped an angry crowd by running into the First Baptist Church and quickly donning choir robes. When the crowd and police searched the church, they didn’t look twice at the choir – not noticing Lafayette or John Lewis, who was still bleeding from the head injury he received.
- He has a memoir recounting his half-century of nonviolent activism and protest, In Peace and Freedom: My Journey in Selma, written with Kathryn Johnson, University Press of Kentucky, 2013.
- From American Civil Liberties Union Papers, 1912-1990, Lafayette appears in Charles Morgan’s correspondence on the Techniques of Non-Violent Protest.
- Lafayette’s work and contributions are covered in various eBooks on GVRL in our collection, including:
- The March from Selma to Montgomery. Lucent Library of Black History. Detroit: Lucent Books, 2011.
- The Civil Rights Movement in America: From Black Nationalism to the Women’s Political Council. Peter B. Levy, ed. Movements of the American Mosaic. Santa Barbara, CA: Greenwood, 2015.
- James Forman and SNCC. Michael V. Uschan. Lucent Library of Black History Detroit: Lucent Books, 2013.
- Sounds of Resistance: The Role of Music in Multicultural Activism. Eunice Rojas and Lindsay Michie. Vol. 1: Activism in the United States. Santa Barbara, CA: Praeger, 2013.
- African American History. Kibibi V. Mack-Shelton, ed. Great Events from History Ipswich, MA: Salem Press/Grey House, 2017.
Now 77 years of age, Dr. Lafayette remains dedicated to the causes of social justice and equality in voter’s rights for which he’s served his whole life, and his stories and the physical scars he bears from his years on this battleground are critical reminders of our history and the principles of nonviolent protest he promotes.