Keeper of the Dream: Bernard Lafayette Carries on the Living Legacy of the Civil Rights Movement

Dr. Lafayette brought into our midst the powerful legacy of the Freedom Movement that won seemingly impossible victories against unimaginable odds — victories won on the “Bloody Sunday” march in Selma; during bus burnings and Freedom Rides in Mississippi and Alabama; and while organizing poor tenants in the tough slums of Chicago.

by Terry Messman

More than five decades worth of hard-fought and extremely costly lessons in building nonviolent movements for social change walked into the Humanist Hall on Oakland on September 20, 2012, in the person of Dr. Bernard Lafayette Jr.

Dr. Lafayette brought into our midst the living legacy of the civil rights movement, the movement that out-thought, out-fought and outlasted the vicious forces of Southern segregationists and Northern slumlords to win seemingly impossible victories against unimaginable odds — victories that represent permanent advances for human rights everywhere.

An admiring audience of young and old students of social change listened intently as this gentle, unassuming man transmitted the powerful lessons he had learned on the “Bloody Sunday” march in Selma, Alabama; during bus burnings and Freedom Rides in Montgomery, Alabama; and while organizing poor tenants in the tough slums of Chicago.

This veteran of so many of the nation’s historic civil rights struggles was introduced by Kazu Haga and Jonathan Lewis of the Positive Peace Warrior Network as part of their training sessions in Kingian Nonviolence, based on the philosophy and principles of Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

Lafayette delivered his message with understated modesty and a lighthearted sense of humor, yet his deeply felt dedication to nonviolent social change stirred those who packed the conference.

Some of the worst violence ever faced by activists in the U.S.

Lafayette is a survivor of some of the most violent clashes and hostile repression ever faced by nonviolent activists in this country. He was arrested at lunch-counter sit-ins in Nashville as a 20-year-old college student. A year later, in 1961, he made the tough decision to continue the Freedom Rides even after nonviolent activists were beaten senseless by rampaging mobs.

Lafayette marched for voting rights down the bloody road in Selma in 1965, steadfastly adhering to nonviolence in a city where he had been severely beaten two years earlier by a white assailant infuriated at his organizing in the black community.

He gave nonviolence trainings to some of Chicago’s toughest gangs in one of the nation’s worst slums, and recruited gang members to work as marshals to keep the peace during nonviolent marches for fair housing. And he lived out Dr. King’s last dream by camping out with tens of thousands of poor people in the plywood shantytowns of the Poor People’s Campaign.

The lessons that Dr. Lafayette imparted to a new generation of activists in Oakland were won at an extremely high price. Civil rights activists endured vicious beatings by violent mobs; bombings by the Klan; police assaults with clubs and attack dogs; countless arrests and jailings; and the murders and martyrdom of dozens of activists.

The lessons were paid for dearly — in blood. Many of Dr. Lafayette’s friends and colleagues have fallen on the long road to justice. Among those who paid the ultimate price was the man who had hired the young Bernard Lafayette to be the National Coordinator of the Poor People’s Campaign — Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Dr. King’s name is now the final name etched in black granite on the Civil Rights Memorial in Montgomery, Alabama, created by the Southern Poverty Law Center in remembrance of 40 martyrs murdered in the freedom struggle.

When King was assassinated in Memphis on April 4, 1968, Lafayette had no choice but to pick up the pieces of his life and work with the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) to organize tens of thousands of poor people and their supporters to set up an encampment called Resurrection City in Washington, D.C., where they confronted the federal government with the human face of poverty — the malnourished bodies, hungry eyes, ragged children and cardboard shacks erected in the midst of the nation’s marble monuments.

But if the Poor People’s Campaign haunted many observers with its disturbing images of poverty, it was itself haunted by the murder of the man who had dreamed it into existence.

King’s final message

Lafayette was with Martin Luther King in the Lorraine Motel in Memphis on the morning before his assassination, and his entire life has been given over to carrying out King’s very last words to him. On his last morning on earth, King told him:

“Now, Bernard, the next movement we’re going to have is to institutionalize and internationalize nonviolence.” That one sentence set the course for the young man’s entire life. During the decades since King’s murder, Lafayette has indeed tried to carry the message of Kingian Nonviolence to the world.

In an interview with Street Spirit, Lafayette explained the deeper meaning of his life’s work: “The reason I went and prepared myself for this work is because I wanted to make sure that those who attempted to assassinate Martin Luther King’s dream — missed.”

Today, Dr. Bernard Lafayette Jr. is a distinguished senior scholar in residence at the Candler School of Theology at Emory University in Atlanta. He is renowned as a highly knowledgeable expert on developing strategies for social change and nonviolent direct action.

But in 1960, when he was a young man only 20 years old, Lafayette was not so much respected for his studies in nonviolence, but beaten, arrested, threatened and assaulted for it.

Although he studied theology at the American Baptist Theological Seminary and took classes in nonviolence at the acclaimed Highlander Folk School, his true education in nonviolence took place during arrests at restaurant sit-ins organized by the Nashville Student Movement.

Dr. Bernard Lafayette addresses a gathering of nonviolent activists in Oakland as Kazu Haga of the Positive Peace Warrior Network listens. Howard Dyckoff photo

 

The Freedom Rides

In 1960, as a young seminary student, Lafayette helped found SNCC, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee; and in 1961, he joined the Freedom Rides organized by CORE, the Congress of Racial Equality, to test in practice the court rulings that had supposedly abolished segregation on interstate bus lines.

But segregationists in positions of power hadn’t heeded the court rulings, and when the buses carrying Freedom Riders reached Birmingham, Alabama, they were viciously attacked and mercilessly beaten with pipes and clubs and bats by brutal mobs of white people.

When Lafayette and his fellow Freedom Riders stepped off the bus as it pulled into Montgomery, Alabama, a violent crowd assaulted them. Three of his friends, John Lewis, Jim Zwerg and William Barbee, were beaten unconscious and Lafayette suffered three fractured ribs in the beating. Then, in Jackson, Mississippi, Lafayette and other Freedom Riders were arrested and jailed at the infamous Parchman State Prison Farm.

Since then, Dr. Lafayette has been president of American Baptist Theological Seminary; was director of the Peace Education Program at Gustavus Adolphus College in Saint Peter, Minnesota; helped to found the Center for Nonviolence and Peace Studies at the University of Rhode Island; and now is the distinguished scholar in residence at Emory University.

Despite those impressive academic credentials, Lafayette learned his deepest lessons about the meaning of nonviolence in the crucible of the civil rights movement. He was beaten and arrested 27 times during the struggle for civil rights.

The legacy of the Freedom Movement

The legacy of the Civil Rights Movement — also known as the Freedom Movement — has lasted so long because it is so profoundly important to our nation.

Once upon a time, as hard as it may be to believe, the nation’s poorest and most oppressed people gathered their courage and showed the whole world not just how brutal and unjust American racism was, but how it could be confronted, resisted, and finally dismantled by a seemingly powerless people who had nothing but their own hope and faith and wisdom to overcome a seemingly unbeatable foe.

Then they gave us one more unforgettable lesson. They demonstrated the heart to forgive the soul-scarring hatred and racism that had been their burden and fate in life for so long. This nation has been enriched beyond measure by their example.

Kazu Haga and Jonathan Lewis of the Positive Peace Warrior Network brought Dr. Lafayette to speak in celebration of the International Day of Peace on September 20. The Positive Peace Warrior Network gives training sessions in Kingian Nonviolence for Bay Area activists and for prisoners in local jails. Just before he addressed the large gathering, Dr. Lafayette graciously gave the following interview to Street Spirit. Like the scholar that he is, he carefully analyzed the accomplishments and mistakes of the civil rights movement and applied those insights to today’s movements.

The dedicated activists of the U.S. civil rights movement created the bravest and most brilliant movement I know. I feel as if I somehow met the entire civil rights movement in the person of Dr. Lafayette. I met the man who was the national director of what I have long felt was the single most visionary movement in our nation’s history — the Poor People’s Campaign. What a blessing that was.

Street Spirit gives thanks to Kazu Haga and David Hartsough, two dedicated practitioners of nonviolent resistance in the Bay Area, for their generous help in arranging the following interview with Dr. Lafayette.

To read the Street Spirit interview with Bernard Lafayette, click HERE.

A Right Delayed Is a Right Denied

“We are here to let San Francisco know that we will resist these laws. We will resist any law that criminalizes the bare necessities of life activities and the basic existence of our people!”

My Journey from San Francisco to Selma

Bishop James Pike of Grace Cathedral thundered from the steps of City Hall: “I’ve been there, and friends, we need more bodies down there, more bodies, and especially more white bodies.” In that instant, I knew I would go to Selma.

The Martin Luther King We Didn’t Know

Sister Eva Lumas teaches the community at St. Mary’s Center about “The Martin We Didn’t Know.” Janny Castillo photo

Martin Luther King believed that the founding principles of the United States required the creation of what he called “the beloved community” — a society that is not driven by making profits, but one that was built by developing relationships of mutual concern and care.

Oakland Celebrates the Radical Political Heritage of Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.

During the Martin Luther King celebration this year, people in East Oakland’s African American and Latino neighborhoods made the connection between the radical politics of Dr. King and the Black Lives Matter movement in solidarity with the people of Ferguson and all those fighting for social justice.

Why Selma Was a Crucial Turning Point for Democracy

Selmapolice.jpg Police in Selma, Alabama, wait for civil rights marchers as they cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge.

Many former slave-holding states in the South blocked black citizens from voting by requiring literacy tests, exacting poll taxes, and using intimidation to exclude black voters. After one hundred years of struggle, the march in Selma culminated in the effort to overcome this injustice.

Working Hard in America’s Twilight Economy

This hardworking couple pick up a huge amount of recycled material on their travels through the East Bay.

Jamie Dimond, the head of JPMorganChase, made over $9,000 an hour during the time his company committed numerous financial crimes, including stealing people’s homes and wrecking the economy. On a good day, Robert the gleaner, a Gulf War veteran who gets around on an old one-speed bike, makes about eight dollars.

Poor Economy Leaves Millions of Children Needing Food Stamps

“The Children Are Starving.” Art by Kaethe Kollwitz, lithograph, 1924

With one in five children needing food stamps to survive, the recession is far from over, and the federal minimum wage needs to increase to become a living-wage. Instead, Democrats and Republicans are joining together for another attack on the safety net and Social Security, in the name of austerity.

Rx for Shortened Lives, Ruined Health, Damaged Minds

Brain.jpg The serious side-effects of medications over a period of years or decades will often leave a person unable to work in a physical job.

The mental health system has a long history of subjecting mental health consumers to electroshock therapy and antipsychotic drugs that have extremely damaging long-term effects on the mind and body. Every few years, powerful new neuroleptic drugs are prescribed before the full range of their mind-damaging side effects are fully known.

A New Wonder Drug for a Brave New World

The new psychiatric drug would alter the human mind and enable patients to be controlled. Art by MIRKO

The drug company knew about the undesirable side-effects but believed psychiatrists would prescribe the drug anyway, at least to those psychiatric clients who regularly made trouble. Enter Jonathan Baxter, who had gone off his medications several times and had been written up in his medical records as being uncooperative and argumentative.

Lost and Homeless Among the Stars

The knot of hunger in my stomach and the consciousness of doom weighed heavily upon me, and I wished I could go to some other planet.

Short story by Jack Bragen hen I die, or after I die, I want to look back at my life […]

Defending Freedom from Police State Abuses

“Report Police Crimes.” Art by Doug Minkler

When citizens are fed up with errant police behavior to the extent that petitions are circulated for a new police reform act, we could see a change in how people are treated. We need to make the law enforcement branch of government accountable to citizens and to the law.

James Baldwin’s Double

Many veterans return home and end up living on the streets. Robert L. Terrell photo

After the battle, Zane recovered in an Army hospital, but the guilt never left him. In his recurring dreams, a white-haired, bearded prophet denounces him: “That bullet had your name on it.” His life is changed forever and the image of his friend Xavier was always in his mind.