Legacy of the Civil Rights Movement: The Street Spirit Interview with Dr. Bernard Lafayette

“From my conjecture and my observations, the assassination was designed to stop the work of Martin Luther King. And 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.”

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

 

Interview by Terry Messman

 

Street Spirit: You were the national coordinator of the Poor People’s Campaign. How did you become involved, and in light of Martin Luther King’s assassination in April 1968 before it could even be launched, what do you feel about its outcome?

Dr. Bernard Lafayette: At that time I was working with the American Friends Service Committee in Chicago. They had hired me as director of the urban affairs program, which was the first urban affairs program the Service Committee had. We originally set it up for three months to see what would happen. As a result of the work we did in Chicago for three months, they hired me permanently.

So I continued as the director of that urban affairs program and we established other urban affairs programs around the country. The reason the AFSC wanted to do this was to experiment with nonviolence in the northern urban areas to see how nonviolence could apply to the violence in the North.

What we did was organize gangs and we got them involved in the movement. We trained gang members from the West Side of Chicago because they wanted to be involved. So we trained them to be nonviolent marshals on the marches for fair housing because they already were an organization and they had leadership.

They had already encountered many scars from past activities, and so they could knock down the bricks and bottles and missiles and things that were thrown at the marchers. They would be a wall between the marchers and the hecklers.

Spirit: You trained them in the principles of nonviolence and they were able to commit to that, even when hecklers threw rocks and bottles at the marchers?

Dr. Lafayette: Yes, and many of those former gang members were invited to be marshals in the march for voting rights in Selma, Alabama, and the Poor People’s Campaign in Washington. We decided to break up the gangs, refocus them and give them new tools. Whole gangs like the Vice Lords marched with us.

So the American Friends Service Committee was right there in the heart of the West Side community of Chicago.

Spirit: What kind of organizing were you able to do with the poor tenants in Chicago’s dilapidated slum hotels?

Dr. Lafayette: We organized a lead-poisoning project because we found that peeling paint on the walls in the interiors of the apartment buildings was a serious hazard to children. It caused them to have brain damage and paralysis and all sorts of things. We discovered that on this project on the West Side of Chicago.

The next thing we did was design a program to deal with that. Too many people were living in one place in these large buildings in Chicago. So the idea is you get the people themselves involved in solving their problems. In the meantime, we were able to get a housing bill through that made lead-based paint illegal, a violation of the law. That’s one of the things that we got through the Illinois legislature, and it became national legislation later.

But these children were being permanently damaged by the lead paint. There were lethal conditions in the housing they lived in. So no matter how good an education system you had, these children would not be able to take advantage of it because they already were permanently impaired, and there was no cure for lead poisoning.

It did permanent damage. The housing conditions we were complaining about created a fatal health problem for young children. The chips had glucose in them so the lead-based paint tasted like sweet potato chips, so they ate a lot of it.

So the health issues as well as the housing issues came together. We began to address some other issues: the lack of sanitation and lack of repairs and the other terrible conditions that people lived in the West Side of Chicago in what they called the ghetto. We also looked at the whole issue of the lack of housing opportunities in other areas of Chicago. We completed a good deal of research and strategy to form the CCCO — the Coordinating Council of Community Organizations.

One of our first staff people for that was Jesse Jackson. He had dropped out of school and he was available and he had some experience in working in the movement. So this was an opportunity for this organization to move forward.

Spirit: King and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference wanted to apply the lessons in nonviolence they learned during the Freedom Movement in the South to impact the racism and poverty people endured in northern cities. Why was Chicago chosen as the city to begin this struggle in the North?

Dr. Lafayette: Dr. King actually wanted to have the northern movement in Boston, Massachusetts—familiar grounds for him. He thought that we could do some important work and get things accomplished there. We were always after not just changing situations in the local areas where we worked. We always wanted our work to have national implications. While we focused and acted locally, our goal was national and sometimes international. That’s the reason that caused Martin Luther King to decide on Chicago, because of the work we had done there.

As a result of that, Martin Luther King watched my work in Selma, Alabama, as well as Chicago. When he decided that he wanted to begin the Poor People’s Campaign, he asked me to come down to Atlanta and join the staff of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. I had worked with SNCC before and I had worked on a volunteer basis with the Congress for Racial Equality (CORE), and of course I was involved in the Freedom Rides, where I worked very closely with CORE.

In fact, when Jim Bevel and I got out of jail, we stayed in Jackson, Mississippi, and recruited about 42 people from Jackson in a period of about two weeks and got them on the Freedom Rides. These were local people who, prior to that, had not gone on the Freedom Rides at all. They didn’t know how to even get on the Freedom Rides. They didn’t have to do much riding because they were already in Jackson, so we just took them down to the bus station and they got arrested. The only ride they got was to the jail!

Martin Luther King realized that the work now had to be done with a national focus. Before, we had worked in local communities, but now Martin Luther King said that the only way that we can convince Congress and Washington to realize the depth of poverty is to put the people who are poor in the face of Congress.

That was the purpose of the Poor People’s Campaign — to put a human face on poverty. So it wasn’t just statistics and that sort of thing. The statistics about poverty were very clear, but people had to be moved emotionally when they saw the eyes of the people who were suffering.

Ralph Abernathy speaks to protesters at a Poor People’s Campaign march in Washington, D.C. Photo by Bill Barnes

 

Spirit: How was such a young man chosen as the national coordinator?

Lafayette:Martin Luther King asked me to come down and do organizing for the Poor People’s Campaign. He first made me the national program administrator of SCLC, which meant that I supervised all the program staff. So I supervised people like Hosea Williams and Jesse Jackson and Jim Bevel, all those people. My immediate supervisor was Andrew Young, who was executive vice-president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. Then Martin Luther King decided to appoint me as national coordinator of the Poor People’s Campaign.

Spirit: The Poor People’s Campaign was a visionary undertaking. A lot of people were worried it was going to be very difficult to mobilize poor people from all over the country.

Lafayette: There was some question on the part of some of the staff people as to whether or not this was something that they wanted to do. So, fortunately, I was able to help persuade them that this was something that was very important in terms of what Martin Luther King intended to do. We postponed the dates when we were going to start the Poor People’s Campaign twice while Martin Luther King was alive. He actually postponed it twice. And the third time, we went forth with it, but Martin Luther King had been assassinated.

Spirit: What effect did that assassination have on you personally, and on the Poor People’s Campaign?

Lafayette: On a personal level, I have not grieved Martin Luther King’s death, because I have not stopped to do that. On the day that Martin Luther King was killed, I was with him that morning in Memphis, Tennessee, at the Lorraine Motel in his room 306, and I was going over the press statement with him because he was going to go to Washington, D.C., and we were going to announce the Poor People’s Campaign officially.

But Martin Luther King could not go to Washington because a march in Memphis [in solidarity with striking sanitation workers] had been broken up in violence and Martin Luther King wanted to hold that march over again.

He told me that since I was the national coordinator, I had to go to Washington. That morning I was going over the press release with him, tweaking it so he would be satisfied with what the statement was all about since I was doing this on his behalf.

Well, the last thing Martin Luther King said to me was a non-sequitur because it had nothing to do with the press statement. But just before I left, he said, “Now, Bernard, the next movement we’re going to have is to institutionalize and internationalize nonviolence — to be discussed later.” And I said, “Okay.”

Five hours later, Martin Luther King was shot and he died. We had to have a funeral. We had to go back and organize the union of sanitation workers so they could get recognition. Then we had to do a Poor People’s Campaign. So I haven’t had time to grieve.

Spirit: Have you ever had a feeling about the cause of his assassination? Have you ever thought that the federal government was so shaken by the idea of his Poor People’s Campaign that they were behind it? Or did you have any other ideas?

Lafayette: There were other people who were much more skilled at trying to find out who killed Martin Luther King. But my own feeling about it is that the clear evidence that’s been gathered shows that it had to be somebody or some group that is very powerful in this country.

Spirit: Like the military or the federal intelligence agencies?

Lafayette: Yes. I wouldn’t say who, but that’s the only conclusion I can come to. James Earl Ray finally said that he did not do it, and I believe he did not do it.

Spirit: And why do you think a powerful force has to be behind it?

Lafayette: Well, in order for anyone to get away with such a blatant and obvious kind of plot, it had to be a well-thought-out and well-executed scheme in order to accomplish that. Now the truth of the matter is that Martin Luther King was prepared for this.

The reports we got from the FBI during that period of time, two weeks before he was assassinated, show that on a daily basis, he got something like 11 death threats a day. When John F. Kennedy was assassinated, Martin Luther King sat at his dining room table watching television, and he said, “This is what is going to happen to me.” So, it was no surprise.

The only thing that surprised me was that they did not kill more of us. When Martin Luther King said his last words to me — “institutionalize and internationalize nonviolence” — I took that very seriously.

Spirit: You’ve spent your whole lifetime doing just that.

Lafayette: I did. I went to Harvard University and I focused on teaching nonviolence, the pedagogy for teaching nonviolence. Then I started implementing this by creating centers in this country and other countries around the world because I wanted to make sure that those who tried to kill Martin Luther King could not stop his work.

Everyone knew Martin Luther King would eventually die. In fact, all of us will eventually die. So why did they assassinate him? They were trying to stop his work and that’s what the assassination was about.

See, what people don’t know is it’s not just in this country. When Martin Luther King started the Poor People’s Campaign, we learned years later there were about 17 different Poor People’s Campaigns around the world where people who were poor started gathering up their little belongings and marching to their capitals.

Spirit: These were people inspired by King’s vision?

Lafayette: Yes, inspired by Martin Luther King’s Poor People’s Campaign. I think it had more international implications than just in our country. From my conjecture and my observations, the assassination was designed to stop the work of Martin Luther King. And 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.

Spirit: Even with the assassination, Resurrection City still happened in Washington, D.C. It may not have had the same impact as if Dr. King were still alive, but it happened. Tens of thousands of poor people came and made poverty visible and confronted the federal government with their demands for housing and healthcare and full employment.

Lafayette: Absolutely, and they made great sacrifices to be part of it. And a lot came out of that Poor People’s Campaign. Just one example would be the federal food program. Prior to the Poor People’s Campaign, if there was going to be a federal food program in any of the cities, those local governments had to provide the program with storage space and also a distribution system. There were some places, like in Mississippi, where they did not have the food programs and people were starving.

Spirit: Hunger was a national problem in the 1960s, but in Mississippi it was a catastrophe, a human emergency.

Lafayette: Yes, and the reason why they didn’t have the food program is that local government officials said that if we gave them free food, we couldn’t work them for 25 cents an hour.

Spirit: That’s exactly what sharecroppers made on those cotton plantations. I studied that system, and the great bluesman Muddy Waters only made 22 cents an hour driving a tractor.

Lafayette: Yes, yes. Absolutely. And therefore these people were denied the food programs that were designed for them. One of the things that came out of the Poor People’s Campaign is that the federal government also provided whatever means necessary to distribute the food and thereby make sure that people had it.

Spirit: Do you see parallels between the goals and the spirit behind the Poor People’s Campaign of 1968 and today’s Occupy Movement or other movements that are fighting hunger and poverty?

Lafayette: Well, I think that the Occupy Movement is an example of grass-roots people deciding to express themselves. This is a First Amendment right, and people have a right to express their discontent. And no change is going to take place unless the people themselves who are the victims of our economic system change their behavior. As long as people are victims and they accept the conditions as they are, nothing will be changed. In fact, they become complicit.

Reverend Jesse Jackson, Poor People’s Campaign march organizer, addresses a huge gathering organized by King’s SCLC in 1968. Photo by Ollie Atkins

 

And I’m not blaming the victims, okay? I’m naming the victims. And I’m also pointing out a strategy that will help the victims. The Montgomery bus boycott, for an example, would not have been effective in desegregating the buses simply by going to court.

School segregation — despite a Supreme Court decision against it [the court ruled in Brown v. Board of Education in 1954 that separate public schools for black and white students were unconstitutional] — still remained all through the ‘60s and ‘70s and even today there are segregated schools. So it’s only when the people themselves decide they are going to participate in helping to bring about the change.

Spirit: In Montgomery, virtually the entire black community refused to ride the buses, and carried out a year-long boycott, often at real personal hardship.

Lafayette: When people participated in the bus boycott, they took the suffering upon themselves. They had already been abused and suffered at the hands of others. Now, they themselves said, “No, I will take the suffering upon myself.”

There’s nothing like one who decides to suffer for a cause — a just cause, one that they believe is right. That’s healing and that also gives people strength and that gives people the fortitude so that they will continue to fight for what is right. It’s a growth experience. Rather than demeaning them, rather than putting them down, this kind of suffering is a suffering that strengthens character. Martin Luther King said: Show me a person who has massive character, and I’ll show you a person who is no stranger to suffering for the right cause. So that is a necessary ingredient.

Spirit: And if freedom is just handed to people without their participation, they haven’t learned how to overcome the next injustice that comes along.

Lafayette: That is why Martin Luther King had the Poor People’s Campaign. He consistently provided an opportunity for people to participate in gaining their own freedom. All the different movements involved this principle.

Spirit: More traditional civil rights groups used the legal system to press for reforms, yet SCLC and SNCC utilized boycotts, sit-ins, Freedom Rides and civil disobedience to overcome segregation. Why did they turn to civil disobedience rather than just using the legal system?

Lafayette: It so happens that in Alabama during this period, back in 1956 and 1957, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People was banned from the State of Alabama because the NAACP refused the orders of the attorney general to turn over their contributors’ list.

We think the only reason that the state wanted the contributors’ list was to see if there were white people who were contributing and supporting the NAACP, and then they were going to go after those people. This was during the McCarthy period, and the NAACP protected these donors by refusing to turn over their names. So the State of Alabama ruled that the NAACP was a foreign corporation, and would not allow them to exist.

But this opened up the opportunity for Martin Luther King to have a new approach — massive civil disobedience and massive non-cooperation. You see, the only reason why a system of oppression can exist is that you’ve got to have the cooperation of the oppressed. So once the oppressed refuse to cooperate then the system can’t continue to exist.

Martin Luther King learned this new method from Mahatma Gandhi, and he got excited about that. It’s the difference between having a protest movement and a movement for social change.

Spirit: Yes, instead of just responding with a series of one-shot protests, the civil rights movement planned strategic campaigns that used resistance on a massive level to overcome an entire system of oppression reinforced by police, laws, corrupt politicians and a segregationist court system. How can activists today design a plan to not just protest injustice, but change an unjust system?

Lafayette: So back to your question about those who are occupying as a form of protest. There are four things that can help the Occupy Movement.

Number one, they would need to have a coordinated group of people who represent the leadership of the different Occupy groups. In the civil rights movement, we had to have a SNCC, a Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. SNCC was made up of representatives of all those different student groups who had sit-ins around the South. And in Chicago, we had the Coordinating Council of Community Organizations. In Selma, Alabama, during the movement for voting rights, we had the Dallas County Voters League which was made up of different organizations and groups and individual leaders.

So you’ve got to have that kind of coalition in order to have an effective movement — number one.

Number two, you have to have a very specific goal that you’re trying to reach so that you’ll know when you’ve achieved your goal. It’s good to have freedom, and it’s good to talk about the 1 percent and the 99 percent because that is all so true. The question is: What is the solution to that problem? Or at least one solution. It may not be something that would solve the entire problem, but one aspect of it.

An example is when we did sit-ins in Nashville protesting segregation at the lunch counters, there were many other places that were segregated. But we chose the most vulnerable place where we had access. They can lock the movie theaters when they got ready, and they tried to lock the downtown stores, but hey, all the customers weren’t black, okay? You had white customers and others who they had to also keep out. So that was not a solution for them and that’s why they took us to jail — so they could open the stores.

But what they didn’t know is that we had so many students. We had thousands of students in Nashville because you have a large number of schools there. At that point, there were about 25 schools of higher education in the Nashville area, and at least about five of them were black. So the point is that you have to carefully select and pick your target.

I think there’s a lot of support for the actions that the Occupy Movement has taken. The method is called direct action but the issues also have to be direct and very specific so people will know which corporations we are focused on, and then be able to say what specific changes we want. And then who are the people who have the power to make the change?

The next thing you must do is find a way to win the support of the majority. No movement, whether it’s violent or nonviolent, has ever succeeded without the active support or sympathy of the majority. Even with those of us who were involved in the sit-ins and Freedom Rides, forty percent of the people in the Freedom Rides were not black. We were able to win the support of the majority of the people.

The Supreme Court — they didn’t have any black justices when we won these rulings against segregation. Congress certainly did not have a lot of black members when the civil rights bills were passed. But we were able to win the sympathy of the majority, and that was a thing that was so important.

So, for the Occupy Movement, what role should the other people play, those who are not involved directly with occupying? We must find a very powerful role of participation for other people who are sympathetic to that cause. There are things they can do. Like, for example, there were many whites who boycotted the downtown stores in Nashville because of segregation — quietly, but they boycotted.

Selma, Alabama, had more white people who were killed in that movement than blacks. They were whites who came and lent their support to that march. Viola Liuzzo, Rev. James Reeb, Jonathan Daniels — these people gave their lives for that cause.

So my point is there must be a way to find the proper role of support for other people in the movement. What should they do? That has to be a total strategy.

And then, the most important thing is the movement must be sustained.

Spirit: Yes, it must be sustained! Nonviolent resistance has been defined as “relentless perseverance” because sustaining a movement, especially when it faces repression, can be the single most important key to overcoming injustice.

Lafayette: When the Freedom Rides were stopped with violence in Anniston, Alabama, and in Birmingham, and the Freedom Riders had taken a terrible whipping and beating, those of us in Nashville continued the rides. So the problem is not that they were beating a few people, but that we didn’t have enough of them to beat! That’s the difference between a protest and a sustained movement.

But see, the Freedom Rides started out as a way of testing segregation in these facilities. Well, when they started beating people and burning buses, the test was over. And that’s when we decided in Nashville to keep it going. We were determined to do that. We had set up stations in different places to recruit people and train them and get them ready to go on the Freedom Rides.

They came though Nashville, they came through other places in Louisiana, they came from many different points. We were ready for them and that’s what we devoted ourselves to do. Those of us who had been involved in the sit-ins knew how to organize. We were trained by James Lawson, Jr. and James Lawson had studied Gandhi in depth and he understood nonviolence and was very effective.

Resurrection City on the Washington Mall, 1968. A few spigots provide the only water for the encampment. Photo by Ollie Atkins

 

Spirit: You were a central part of the Selma voting rights movement that led to Congressional passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. People bled and died for the right to vote. Yet now the big news of this election is the voting suppression efforts of the Republicans that may disenfranchise poor people, seniors, students and people of color. Some politicians have likened this to a new kind of poll tax in exactly the way that the segregated South used poll taxes to prevent black citizens from voting. Given your central role in fighting for the right to vote, what do you make of voter suppression efforts?

Lafayette: If the opponents can make that work, they can gain power again. We were able to derail all of these strategies to suppress voter participation by dramatizing the issue, and by getting federal support. We put forth a bill that would cause people to value the right to vote by going and participating in the effort to follow the procedures to register unregistered voters — until we demonstrated that it didn’t work. We had to demonstrate that the procedure didn’t work.

So they asked us to fill out voter registration tests and literacy tests and exams even though they knew people. They wanted them to have a voucher, or a person who could vouch for them. They were simply used to suppress the members of minorities who were trying to vote. In Texas, they had a poll tax that people had to pay to prevent people from voting.

Now it’s mature to admit when you make a mistake. And you ask: What mistake did we make in the movement? Our mistake is that we did not establish in every county a citizenship education program. It’s one thing to get the right to vote. The only way you can keep the right to vote is that you have to understand the involvement required of citizenship.

Because it’s not a matter of simply going down and deciding who to vote for every time an election comes up; it’s on a daily, weekly, monthly basis. You have to look at the candidates, you have to attend the school board meetings, you have to go to the county commission and city council meetings. You’ve got to have a system where you have these discussions and you get information out to people.

We did not do that. So people still did not know how to be effective citizens. You do not have voter suppression when you have well-informed citizens who will demand their rights. Because, after all, the people we’re talking about who are trying to suppress voter turnout are people who were elected to represent the voters, and if you allow them to represent you without giving them specific instructions, then you have to say you’re partly to blame.

We made an error. I admit that error but it’s not too late to correct it. They’ve taken citizenship education out of our schools — they don’t teach civics anymore. Why does our educational system not teach our young people what it means to be good citizens and how to participate in citizenship? We have failed them. So the only solution to that problem is to get it right, and if they won’t do it in schools, then we have to do it in our communities.

Spirit: There is a terrible new wave of repression that is kind of like the Anti-Poor People’s Campaign. In city after city, officials are passing laws that criminalize homeless people just for existing. We don’t have enough housing or shelters for people, so cities are outlawing sitting and lying and sleeping outdoors. The mayor of Berkeley is pushing a ballot measure to criminalize poor people for sitting down. Given your role in organizing the Poor People’s Campaign, what do you think of these attempts to banish poor people?

Lafayette: Well, the first thing we would do in the movement was ask questions. Then we would ask questions about those answers. It’s called research: search and re-search. We have to find out why people behave that way. Why do they want to criminalize people who are already without? They’re taking away their freedom.

Spirit: Our research shows that the business community is behind most of the efforts to ban homeless people. They want them out of the downtown area in the belief that it will help their profits. They act as if they believe they own the downtown and can use these new segregation laws to drive away poor people.

Lafayette: Right, and they own people and politicians as well. The point you’re asking about our government is that we must have a responsible government. There is no question about it. And I do not back up from saying that this kind of problem is the direct responsibility of our government. We should not have people being homeless in the first place. Some countries do not have homeless people, and we are supposedly the leaders of the free world? Well, which world is that when you’ve got so many people poor and in prison?

We must find a solution to homelessness because banning them is not a solution. Putting people in prison because they don’t have a place to stay, or a job, or food to eat, is not a solution. If we can figure out how to walk on the moon and go fly around Mars and conquer outer space, I think we need to conquer inner space — the space between our ears.

I’m embarrassed that after all the years of fighting for the freedom of people that we have come to this point. But we’re not going to stop. Yes, we’re going to raise these issues, but we’re also going to correct the problem. And that’s the difference between the movement and a protest.

You don’t simply complain about it; you do something about it. And we’re going to help our young people learn how to mobilize, how to organize. They know how to reach people and communicate because they know the technology of communication. Now they need information and training so they can understand strategy. And that’s what we’re about.

Spirit: Is this the time for a new Poor People’s Campaign and if so, what would that look like?

Lafayette: Now I would agree with those who say that we need a Poor People’s Campaign, and I think the time is right. When you see the large numbers of people participating in the Occupy Movement, that means that people are ready to make sacrifices, they’re ready to stand up and they’re ready to confront the system. But it’s not enough to simply protest a condition. You’ve got to design the strategy for changing it.

To Read Terry Messman’s feature article on Dr. Bernard Lafayette click here.

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