Civil rights leader Bernard LaFayette Jr. shared his wisdom from coordinating freedom rides and marches as well as his vision for current nonviolent protests with GC students on Wednesday, Jan. 30 in the A&S auditorium.
Attendees listened closely as LaFayette, a cofounder of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, spoke of strategy meetings, laughing as he shared funny stories of men now revered as Civil Rights heroes.
“Just being in his presence, I was starstruck,” said junior Taylor Carswell, an accounting major and SGA senator.
LaFayette’s painful experiences—being packed into a jail for riding in the front of segregated busses, being hit with hoses and abused at lunch counter sit-ins—seemed dimmed by years passed along with his unshakable hope and faith in human goodness.
“He is the best kind of celebrity,” said sophomore Ana Paulasanchez, a mass communication major who attended the event. “How powerful is it to see a man who fought for something still serving with such joy and humility?”
In his day, LaFayette organized lunch counter sit-ins and desegregation efforts for bus stations in Nashville. At the ripe age of 22, he was assigned by MLK to coordinate and send teams to Selma, Alabama, to mobilize local leaders for marches and voter registration drives.
The revered speaker shared his inspiration for joining the civil rights movement: his grandmother.
He recalled an incident in the late 40s as a young boy when his grandmother paid her bus fare up at the front but then had to walk outside the bus to sit in the back. Before she reached the back door, she tripped, the bus driver took off and he was left alone in the street with his injured grandmother.
“Even at that young age, I thought to myself, ‘When I get grown, I’m going to do something about this problem. Not for my grandchildren, but for my grandmomma,’” LaFayette said.
LaFayette’s calm voice was steady, punctuated with chuckles as he laughed at his own jokes or reminisced about riding in the car with Martin Luther King, Jr.
“On those long car rides between cities, it was [MLK]’s job to keep the driver awake,” LaFayette said. “He would have us all rolling laughing because he told the best jokes.”
When the young men weren’t laughing, they were planning and strategizing.
LaFayette recalled MLK recruiting military veterans for their ability to see obstacles and plot ways around them as the civil rights movement faced obstacles across the southeast.
Remaining non-violent in the face of violent opposition was one of the movement’s most impressive tactics.
“Having non-violent leadership meant that [those within the movement] accepted the strategy of what we were doing,” LaFayette said.
When it was time for LaFayette to take a treacherous ride through rural Alabama in the front seat of a segregated bus on one of his famed freedom rides, he said he was determined and unafraid.
“I had already faced death in my life,” LaFayette said. “So I didn’t fear death.”
He talked about the white people who stood with him and others in the Selma march and who voted to pass the Civil Rights Act in Congress. He emphasized that people came together and saw each other beyond skin color and beyond prejudices.
LaFayette culminated with a final encouragement to find meaning in life by giving of yourself to better the lives of those around you.
Hope for the 21st century
When a student stood up and asked what lessons he could give to 21st century activists, that he stepped to the front of the stage, reinvigorated and impassioned for nonviolent protest to bring about change.
He encouraged young leaders to research their topics, observe the scenarios they are walking into and to keep faith.
“Talk to your opponents, and if you can say something nice, do so,” LaFayette said. “You need to win people over, not win over people.”
When asked about the current division in our country, the civil rights leader said he wasn’t worried, that this too shall pass.
Those words were a balm to event organizer Stacey Milner, director of the cultural center, who invited LaFayette to GC.
“I know right now in our country there are a lot of folks who are [asking], ‘Is this the end of us as a country?’ and even Dr. LaFayette said he is not worried,” Milner said. “I breathed a sigh of relief! For him to say he’s not worried, then I know I shouldn’t be worried, because [he] has seen way more in his lifetime than we have seen in ours.”