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

Dr. Bernard Lafayette was with Martin Luther King in Memphis on the morning of his assassination. In King’s final words to Lafayette, he said it was crucial to “institutionalize and internationalize nonviolence.” Lafayette has spent his entire life in steadfastly carrying out King’s very last words to him.

Dr. Bernard Lafayette (center, in suit) discusses nonviolent movements with activists in Oakland on the International Day of Peace. Photo by Howard Dyckoff

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 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; and during bus burnings and Freedom Rides in Jackson, Mississippi; 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.

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

This man 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 nonviolent 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.

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.

Martin Luther King, Jr. gives his “I Have a Dream” speech to a huge gathering by the Washington monument. In April 1968, King was assassinated while planning to return to Washington, D.C., to launch a massive Poor People’s Campaign.


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.

In 1960, as a young seminary student, he 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 a movement

The legacy of the civil rights 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 exposed, confronted, resisted, and finally dismantled by a seemingly powerless people who had nothing but their own hope and faith and wisdom to overcome an 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 special thanks to Kazu Haga and David Hartsough, two of the most dedicated practitioners of nonviolent resistance in the Bay Area, for their generous help in arranging the Street Spirit interview with Dr. Lafayette.


To read Terry Messman’s interview with Dr. Bernard Lafayette click here.

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