Interview: Bernard Lafayette, 'A More Unified Community' | HistoryNet MENU
Lafayette in 2011, 50 years after he'd participated in the Freedom Rides.

Interview: Bernard Lafayette, ‘A More Unified Community’

By Richard Ernsberger Jr.
9/29/2015 • American History Magazine

CIVIL RIGHTS ACTIVIST BERNARD LAFAYETTE played a key role in some of the most notable demonstrations in the 1960s. He, along with James Bevel, Diane Nash and John Lewis, was a leader of the 1960 Nashville Student Movement that conducted lunch counter sit-ins at segregated restaurants. Lafayette also took part in the 1961 interstate bus Freedom Rides and, working with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and Martin Luther King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference, helped to organize voting rights demonstrations in Alabama, including the Selma to Montgomery march. Today, the 75-year-old Lafayette is the director of the Emory (University) Center for Advancing Nonviolence in Atlanta. Lafayette’s memoir, In Peace and Freedom: My Journey in Selma, was published in 2013 by the University Press of Kentucky.

Last March you joined a commemorative walk across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, where 50 years earlier police attacked the demonstrators marching for voting rights—the infamous Bloody Sunday. What were your thoughts?

There was a real connection between what happened 50 years ago and the commemorative march. Fifty years ago there were only a dedicated few. This time there were 120,000 people in Selma. The president and congressional representatives were there…people representing different groups and communities. It was unimaginable to have so many people interested and identify with the original march and the Voting Rights Act passed 50 years ago. The week after the commemorative walk, college students from all over the country, at the invitation of the National Park Service, also reenacted the Selma to Montgomery march. It was called a walking classroom, and I was invited back to speak to the students—there were about 500 or 600. That was absolutely encouraging.

What obstacles did black voters face in the South?

It was very serious. There were people who were shot down and killed. Bombings took place. That’s why it was very difficult for me to [organize] a mass meeting in Selma; people were afraid that they would get fired from their jobs or that churches would be bombed. It was very repressive, and the federal government didn’t do anything. If people who were trying to register to vote got harassed or killed, it was a state offense. They had to take tests, which were very subjective; the applicants had to read a section of the Constitution and then interpret it for the registrar, and the registrar would say, “You didn’t interpret it correctly.” So they couldn’t register.

Why was nonviolence such an important principle in the civil rights movement?

Because our goal was to create a much more unified community—to help people learn to work together and solve problems together. Nonviolence was the goal, and the method of reaching that goal was nonviolence. We weren’t going to advocate harming people who disagreed with us. Our purpose was to make the nation aware of what we were protesting. The first right we needed was the right to march: As Martin Luther King said, we had “to fight for the right to fight for right.” But we were aware that we would face violence, and at the Montgomery, Ala., bus station we were badly beaten—I got three cracked ribs. Fortunately, no one got killed on the Freedom Rides and we accomplished our goals. There are other alternatives. One is to do nothing and let violence take its course. Another is to combat violence with violence, which would increase the amount of violence. The third is to use nonviolence as an example of how to change a violent society. Your actions are what you advocate.

President Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act. Did activists view him as a friend of the movement?

Some people did and some people didn’t. Johnson certainly advocated passing the public accommodations act—the Civil Rights Act of 1964. But he also was interested in the war on poverty and got involved in the Vietnam War, and was preoccupied with that, and so was not, early on, an advocate for the Voting Rights Act. When Martin Luther King asked him about it, Johnson waved him off and said he’d done enough for civil rights. He initially was reluctant, but we were able to get the attention of masses of people. So Johnson was forced to [push for] passage of the voting rights bill. He was a friend of the movement, in a way, because he ultimately made it happen.

Was the Voting Rights Act the era’s most effective piece of civil rights legislation?

I would say so. Our whole democratic process means people participate in governance. If we deny people the vote, then they have no say in our governance. That voting rights act did more to change our involvement and participation than any other piece of legislation, and that’s why it was met with so much resistance.

Were there big changes in black registration and voter turnout in the South in the years immediately after the law was passed?

Yes, absolutely. We had more black elected officials in Mississippi than in any other state. There was a substantial increase in black voting participation—but not a majority. There was an observable change. Still, people have to be educated. We made one big mistake: After the Voting Rights Act was passed, we, including myself, assumed that people would just go out and register and exercise their right to vote. We should have established citizen education centers in every county where people could learn how to participate in government. It’s not simply about voting; it’s about going to city council and county commission meetings and having a voice in civic discussions—making people aware of issues and bills. We didn’t do that, and many people did not participate, because it was not their habit.

What did you think of the recent Supreme Court decision that threw out a key provision in the Voting Rights Act?

When a new law is put in place, the assumption is that it’s going to correct the problem. A condition for passing the act was that it had to be renewed periodically, and there was the assumption that it would not be renewed when the problem was solved. There is an assumption that schools are no longer segregated, OK? And there is an erroneous assumption that there are no more impediments to voter registration. When the federal government decreases its involvement and oversight, [discriminatory] things happen. We still have to make sure that the change is complete.

What’s the most important idea that you want readers to take from your memoir In Peace and Freedom?

I want to see nonviolence and conflict management skills put in every educational institution in the country. You see so much violence in our society. We are too intelligent to be responding to each other with violence. It’s not a matter of intelligence; it is a matter of skills. We need to have that component in schools, just like English and math.

Originally published in the December 2015 issue of American History magazine. Subscribe here. Photo: ZUMA PRESS, INC./ALAMY

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