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Bernard Lafayette Jr. (born July 29, 1940, in Tampa, Florida) is a longtime civil rights activist and organizer, who was a leader in the 1960s Civil Rights Movement. He played a leading role in early organizing of the Selma, Alabama, voting rights campaign; was a member of the Nashville Student Movement; and worked closely throughout the 1960s movements with groups such as the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), and the American Friends Service Committee.
Lafayette's parents were Bernard Lafayette, Sr., and Verdell Lafayette. Lafayette spent much of his childhood in Tampa, Florida, but also lived in several other places, as his father was an itinerant laborer. His family spent two years in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, where his sister Rozelia was born. Philadelphia was where the young Bernard first lived in an integrated community.
As a young man at the age of twenty, Lafayette moved to Nashville, Tennessee, and enrolled in the American Baptist Theological Seminary. During the course of his freshman year, he took classes in nonviolence at the Highlander Folk School run by Myles Horton, and attended many meetings promoting nonviolence. He learned more about the philosophy of nonviolence as lived by Gandhi, while taking seminars from activist James Lawson, a well-known nonviolent representative of the Fellowship of Reconciliation.
Lafayette began to use the nonviolent techniques as he became more exposed to the strong racial injustice of the South. In 1959, he, along with his fellow friends Diane Nash, James Bevel, and John Lewis, all members of the Nashville Student Movement, led sit-ins, such as the 1960 Lunch Counter Sit-In, at restaurants and businesses that practiced segregation. As a strong advocate of nonviolence, Lafayette, in 1960, assisted in the formation of a group known as the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC).
In 1961, the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) initiated a movement to enforce federal integration laws on interstate bus routes. This movement, known as the Freedom Rides, had African American and white volunteers ride together on bus routes through the segregated South. Lafayette wanted to participate, but his parents forbade him. After the Freedom Riders were violently attacked in the city of Birmingham, Alabama, the Nashville Student Movement, of which Lafayette was a member, vowed to take over the journey. At the time, some civil rights leaders worried that the Freedom Rides were too provocative and would damage the movement. Despite many doubts, these Nashville students were determined to finish the job.
In May 1961, in the city of Montgomery, Alabama, Lafayette and the other riders were "greeted" at the bus terminal by an angry white mob, members of Ku Klux Klan chapters, and were viciously attacked. The Freedom Riders were brutally beaten. Their attackers carried every makeshift weapon imaginable: baseball bats, wooden boards, bricks, chains, tire irons, pipes, and even garden tools.
During the Montgomery attack, Lafayette stood firm; his fellow riders William Barbee and John Lewis were beaten until they fell unconscious. Lafayette, Fred Leonard and Allen Cason narrowly escaped being killed by jumping over a wall and running to the post office. Everyone inside was carrying on individual business, just like nothing was happening outside. Lafayette later stated, " I thought they were shooting Freedom Riders." It was the gunshot of the well-known segregationist, Floyd Mann, who was fighting for the protection of the freedom riders.
Lafayette with other Riders was arrested in Jackson, Mississippi, and jailed at Parchman State Prison Farm during June 1961. During Lafayette's participation in civil rights activities, he was beaten and arrested 27 times.
In the summer of 1962, Lafayette accepted a position with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) to do organizing work in Selma, Alabama. Upon arriving in the city, he began leading meetings at which he spoke about the condition of African Americans in the South and encouraged local African Americans to share their experiences. On the night of June 12, 1963, (the same night that Medgar Evers was murdered in Mississippi), Lafayette was severely beaten by a white assailant. While badly injured, he was not deterred from continuing his work. In late 1964, the board of Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) decided to join the ongoing Alabama Project organized by James Bevel, Diane Nash, and James Orange, and chose Selma as the focal point to gain voting rights for African Americans. In early 1965, Lafayette, Bevel, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Orange, Nash and others organized a series of public demonstrations that finally—with the march from Selma-to-Montgomery initiated by Bevel—put enough pressure on the federal government to take action, and gave enough support to President Lyndon Johnson for Johnson to demand the drafting and passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
Lafayette went on to work on the 1966 Chicago Open Housing Movement (he had worked in Chicago earlier with Kale Williams and other leaders of the American Friends Service Committee). He later became ordained as a Baptist minister and served as president of the American Baptist Theological Seminary.
In 1973, Lafayette was named first director of the Peace Education Program at Gustavus Adolphus College, Saint Peter, Minnesota. The Gustavus program enabled Lafayette to infuse the entire curriculum of the college with peace education. Lafayette served this Lutheran liberal arts college for nearly three years.
He was a Senior Fellow at the University of Rhode Island, where he helped to found the Center for Nonviolence and Peace Studies. The Center promotes nonviolence education using a curriculum based on the principles and methods of Martin Luther King, Jr. He is a Distinguished Scholar-in-Residence at the Candler School of Theology, at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia.
Phillip H. Savage, Tri-State Director, NAACP