by Terry Messman
Considering how many times the organizers and activists of the Freedom Movement were jailed all across the nation during the hard-fought struggle for civil rights, San Bruno County Jail seems a fitting place to celebrate a renewal of Martin Luther King’s vision of nonviolent social change.
As our small delegation entered the jail to hold a graduation ceremony for nine prisoners who had completed intensive trainings in Kingian Nonviolence, I felt a profound sense of history on the move. For as we walked down the long corridors of the jail, we were led by Bernard LaFayette, a close associate of Martin Luther King, Jr. and an internationally respected authority on Kingian Nonviolence.
LaFayette’s personal march through history has taken him from organizing the disenfranchised black residents of Selma, Alabama, prevented from voting by a brutal system of racism, to his present-day trainings in Kingian Nonviolence with disenfranchised prisoners in jails.
LaFayette was chosen by Martin Luther King to be the national coordinator of the Poor People’s Campaign in 1968. And he was with Dr. King in the Lorraine Motel in Memphis on the morning of April 4, 1968, the day King was murdered in Memphis. In a very real sense, LaFayette is present at San Bruno jail to honor King’s very last words to him.
On King’s last morning on earth, he told LaFayette: “Now, Bernard, the next movement we’re going to have is to institutionalize and internationalize nonviolence.” During the decades since King’s murder, LaFayette has spent his life trying to carry the message of Kingian Nonviolence to the world, training social-change activists in far-flung nations, setting up peace studies in universities and teaching nonviolence inside jail cells.
As we entered a large complex of jail cells that houses about 50 prisoners, I noticed that Theresa Guy Moran, an attorney trained in Kingian Nonviolence, was carrying a book with a cover photo of a young Bernard LaFayette standing side by side with Martin Luther King. The book, In Peace and Freedom, My Journey in Selma, is an illuminating case study of the brilliant strategies and costly sacrifices it took to win voting rights on the bloody streets of Selma, Alabama.
When several young prisoners realized that LaFayette was, in truth, the same man standing next to Dr. King in the book’s cover photo, they immediately expressed deep respect and gratitude to LaFayette for his work for civil rights in Selma.
LaFayette had begun this long march through the nation’s jail cells 50 years ago, when he was first arrested in the Nashville Student Movement in 1960, then brutally beaten by a racist mob during the Freedom Rides in 1961, and then marked for assassination after becoming the leading SNCC organizer for the voting rights struggle in Selma in 1963.
The Jailhouse Graduation
Our delegation entered a large cellblock and we were warmly greeted by about 50 male prisoners attending the graduation on April 22, 2014. Kazu Haga, director of the East Point Peace Academy in the Bay Area, has conducted trainings in Kingian Nonviolence all across the country. Training people in jails has become an important focus of his work, and he has spent several months training men imprisoned in San Bruno County Jail.
San Bruno jail authorities have given full cooperation to Bernard LaFayette and Kazu Haga to enable them to conduct sessions in Kingian Nonviolence inside the jail. The prison guards and counselors greeted us warmly and told me they welcome the training program because it gives a renewed sense of purpose and meaning in the lives of people serving jail sentences in tough circumstances.
Along with Haga and LaFayette, other speakers at the graduation included Gus Newport, former mayor of Berkeley and currently a member of the National Council of Elders; Michael Nagler, founder of the Peace and Conflict Studies Program at the University of California; and Theresa Moran of the East Point Peace Academy.
More than 60 prisoners cheered enthusiastically as Haga introduced the nine graduates and praised their dedication in completing several months of sessions to become certified as trainers in Kingian Nonviolence Conflict Reconciliation.
“I always say that nonviolence is a destination,” Haga told the prisoners in the large cellblock. “We never become nonviolent because we’re human and imperfect. You’ll never get to a place where we’ll never fail in being nonviolent because we’re human beings, and each one of us, myself included, are all imperfect. So we’re always going to fail, but it’s about how we get back up again. It’s about the study and the practice of nonviolence and getting better and better at practicing this philosophy every single day.”
The level of enthusiasm that greeted his comments was remarkable. The cellblock echoed with praise and applause and support for the graduates.
Then Haga drew a direct parallel between the nonviolence training sessions attended today by young prisoners in San Bruno jail and the formative trainings that civil rights icons such as James Lawson, James Forman and Bernard LaFayette held to prepare for sit-ins and marches in the deep South in the early 1960s.
Haga said, “We have been practicing every single week for the last four and one-half months, just like Dr. LaFayette and a lot of the leaders of the civil rights movement who trained for months and months on end before they engaged in the civil rights movement. They knew that change is not an easy thing. Whether it’s trying to change something in your own life or trying to change something in the world, it doesn’t come easily. You have to be committed to that practice.”
The nine men graduating from this program then stepped forward and received their certificates to the prolonged applause of their fellow prisoners.
Haga said, “As each of you receive these certificates, you’ll be joining an army of thousands and thousands of Kingian nonviolent warriors around the world, and joining a family and joining a movement — from rebel fighters in Nigeria, to high school students in Chicago, to educators in Nepal, to peace activists in Japan, Sri Lanka and Colombia. Dr. LaFayette has been going around the world recruiting people into the world of Kingian nonviolence.
“So you’re really joining a massive movement of people who have committed themselves to trying to create the beloved community. So I hope you are proud of yourselves because I am incredibly proud of you and happy for you.”
Gus Newport, the former mayor of Berkeley and a member of the National Council of Elders, told the prisoners, “I just want to say congratulations. I know how difficult it is. I remember coming out of the streets, the person that steered me towards nonviolence was Malcolm X. Thank you for allowing us to be here. Good luck and God bless you.”
The Boomerang Effect
In an interview after the ceremony, Newport said it was remarkable to see Dr. King’s vision of nonviolence coming to life all over again in a jail in San Bruno so many years after his assassination. He said that the civil rights movement had a “boomerang effect” on U.S. society.
Newport recalled the riots after King’s death when it seemed like everything had been lost, and the momentum of the movement was gone. People at the time “didn’t realize how deeply rooted the movement had become,” he said. They couldn’t see at the time that “with a little water and sunshine how things would go on blooming for another 50 years.”
“It’s the boomerang that can turn everything around,” Newport said. “At a certain moment, it just turns around in its flight. These jail trainings are saying, ‘Open up your mind, your spirit, your life, and understand what you are now capable of in serving the greater society.’”
Gandhi said that poverty is the worst form of violence. Newport echoed that in saying that extreme poverty is often the underlying cause of the desperation that drives people to crime. “Poverty is the granddaddy of crime and war,” Newport said.
“We know that people who are serving time often got in trouble because they were victims of society. Let’s face it, poverty is the granddaddy of crime and war. This country must begin to recognize that. These young people, given the chance, and given some education and training and exposure to a new life and a job, will do more to help turn around this society than some of the people sitting in Washington, D.C., right now.”
When asked why he had gone so far out of his way to attend a nonviolence graduation for a handful of prisoners in a remote jail in San Bruno, Newport said, “We who are about peace know that they don’t have to look at the world through the eyes of capitalism or violence or war or violation of the environment. We are here because we care about peace and human beings.”
We can’t throw people away
Theresa Guy Moran, an attorney working with the East Point Peace Academy, has taken 40 hours of training in Kingian Nonviolence. In an interview at the jail, she said that she finds it very “moving” to take the message of Kingian Nonviolence into the jail cells.
“It’s a population that people generally discount, dismiss and throw away,” Moran said. “And I see great potential, and great love and great caring here. I mean, I don’t romanticize this. People do a lot of things that lead to jail, and then they do what is appropriate to make amends. But we can’t afford to throw anyone away. God doesn’t make mistakes.”
Kazu Haga described to the gathering his belief that the spirit of Kingian nonviolence is indestructible, and could not be killed even by an assassin’s bullet.
“The assassin who fired the bullet into Martin Luther King on the morning of April 4, 1968 – that assassin missed,” he said. “Because the assassins weren’t just trying to kill a person, they were trying to kill a philosophy, a set of ideals, and a movement. Every time we come together to talk about Kingian nonviolence and Dr. King’s legacy, we are the evidence that the assassin missed his target. So we are all joining that legacy.”
Then Haga introduced LaFayette to the gathering, saying, “There have probably not been very many people on this earth who have done more to keep that legacy alive than Dr. Bernard LaFayette.”
LaFayette told the prisoners, “I’m thrilled to be here with you. I’ve been in jail before. I’ve been arrested 27 times. This whole idea of nonviolence is spreading around the world. I’m so proud of you. You are joining a global community of people who have found there’s another way.”
LaFayette met with King at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis on April 4, 1968, the morning of the assassination. King was scheduled to travel with LaFayette to Washington, D.C., to announce to the press their plans for the Poor People’s Campaign. But King had to stay in Memphis to work with striking sanitation workers so he sent LaFayette ahead, promising he would join him in the nation’s capital.
All that history was on LaFayette’s mind as he addressed inmates at the San Bruno jail. He gave one of the most moving expressions of hope I have ever heard.
“When they tried to kill Martin Luther King, they missed,” LaFayette said. “Because Martin promised me something in Memphis when I was with him on April 4, 1968. He said, ‘You go on to Washington, D.C., to organize the Poor People’s Campaign and I’ll be along later.’ Then he was shot and killed that very day.
“But Martin Luther King was a man of his word. Almost 50 years later, he showed up in a huge, 30-foot memorial statue on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. — right where he said he was coming. Can you imagine that?
“Now they’re celebrating his birthday and his life in countries all over the world — in places where Martin Luther King never went. Martin Luther King gave us what he had to offer. The question is: What are we now going to give the world?”