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.

Blues for Martin Luther King, Jr.

In the despairing days after Dr. King’s death, the nation was overcome by the blues, so it was fitting that the pre-eminent blues band in the land would play for the activists in Resurrection City.

We’ll March on Resurrection Day

The final stanza is like a dream. Big Joe Williams looks down at Martin Luther King’s face, and vows to the slain civil rights leader that we’ll keep marching on — even unto Resurrection Day.

Treasure Island or Toxic Island?

Treasure Island is not a recreation destination — it’s a radiation destination. Fifty years of Naval activity have contaminated it with a horrifying array of radioactive and chemical pollutants. Eight of the “dirty dozen” banned chemicals on the Stockholm Convention’s list of the most dangerous chemicals are found at Treasure Island.

Abuse of Tenants at Notorious Slum Hotel in Oakland

“There is no heat. They do not allow tenants to use the elevator. The building has bed bugs, rats, and is loaded with flies from the garbage piled up at the property. Our toilet does not work, the shower barely drips, and the building lacks smoke detectors in most apartments.”

Mission Residents Battle Gentrification from New Condo Development

At the first action against the condo development, Guillermina Castellanos, a mother who lives in the Mission, said: “This building they want to build, it won’t be for our families. It will be for another class of families that have money. We don’t have sufficient money to pay for these condominiums.”

Sorrow in the Spring: Memories of Dr. King’s Memorial

As I write of the memorial services for Martin Luther King, Jr., we’re in a similar crisis today, as Ferguson, Missouri, joins the ranks of Memphis, Watts, Selma and far too many other locations where our nation’s racism has given us a shameful record of violations of human rights.