From the Archives: Dr. Bernard Lafayette Jr., the Gentle Rebel

Freedom Fighter Dr. Bernard LaFayette Jr. is not afraid to risk his life for civil rights.
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Bernard LaFayette Jr. Photograph by Dana Smith

This story was originally published in the March 2001 issue of Rhode Island Monthly. Today, Dr. LaFayette Jr. serves as a professor at Auburn University in Auburn, Alabama.

Small necessary acts of civil disobedience. It’s what started this country on the road to being this country. It’s what Thoreau wrote about in “Resistance to Civil Government.” It’s the driving force inside anyone who must determine if breaking the rules is being true to one’s core beliefs.

Today, it makes Dr. Bernard Lafayette Jr. park in a blocked-off lot at the University of Rhode Island. There is construction going on somewhere else and campus police have closed the lot near the office of LaFayette, a URI Distinguished Scholar-in-Residence and director of the URI Center for Nonviolence and Peace Studies. The construction does not affect this lot yet, and parking already being at a premium at URI, it makes little sense to LaFayette that it’s blocked off today.

So LaFayette — disciple and friend of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., a man who was beaten bloody during the civil rights movement, a man whose assassination came within a shotgun’s muzzle of being successful, a man who was arrested twenty-seven times for acts of civil disobedience in the name of nothing less than the revolution of human rights in America – drives peaceably over a couple of unoccupied sidewalks and parks, alone, in the lot near his office. I remind him that what he’s done is another act of civil disobedience.

“I guess it is,” he says with a slight smile as he looks at his car before heading to his office. But here at URI, here in Rhode Island, here in this country, here on planet Earth, there is much work to be done to bring peace to it all. So parking a little closer to his office to get a jump on things is true to the core beliefs of the still civilly disobedient LaFayette.

 

In 1961, LaFayette was a skinny twenty-year-old black kid who embraced the huge ideal of a world at peace, and blacks and whites co-existing in harmony. In 2001, LaFayette is a slightly paunchy sixty-year-old black man who still embraces the huge ideal of a world at peace, and blacks and whites co-existing in harmony. And what little difference, save for the physical, it’s made in LaFayette, a man still working for peaceful change and attempting to bring non-violence to one of the most violent countries on Earth.

As head of LaFayette and Associates of Nashville, which has conducted non-violence workshops around the world, LaFayette came to Rhode Island three years ago to lead sessions teaching non-violence to the Providence police. Officials at URI liked what they saw, knew LaFayette’s incredible history, and asked him to come to URI to head its new Center for Nonviolence and Peace Studies. He is slated to do so for three years, and has settled here with his wife, Kate, though he does acknowledge that teaching peace could take longer. More recently he also agreed to double duty: chairing the Governor’s Commission on Race and Police-Community Relations, formed in response to the accidental police shooting of Providence officer Cornell Young.  Lafayette was a man given to the then-lofty ideal of equal rights for blacks forty years ago and his commitment to social change hasn’t changed a whit. Now, though, his focus has expanded to bring peace and nonviolence to Rhode Island, the country, and the world. When he was last here a few years ago, he said that he wanted to make it the first non-violent state in the country, and that “I’m looking at this like I looked at Selma, Alabama, in 1962” where his organizing black voting registration almost got him killed.

We’re in his tiny office at URI, and LaFayette, whom virtually everyone respectfully refers to as “Doc,” is sitting back, calm, relaxed, and totally at ease. It’s a manner that also hasn’t changed in forty years, according to those who know him. He’s wearing a pinstripe suit with a tie featuring children of all colors holding hands. I hit him with the notion that making this state the first non-violent one in the country – particularly in light of recent homicides that have dominated the news – might be a little far-fetched. He smiles a smile that makes you instantly feel that while the notion may be out there, he is definitely not.

“The most important thing is to start the process,” LaFayette says. “Even if you don’t reach the destination, you can still build the railroad tracks.”

That is about the preachiest thing the preacher would say in all the time I visit with him, and this is a man of the cloth who last year retired as president of the American Baptist College in Nashville. He is a totally unpretentious, undramatic man and if anyone has license to be dramatic and given to puffy oratory, a la Jesse Jackson (a friend of his), it would be LaFayette. But it’s just not his way.

“We need to reach the people who are doing the violence,” he says. “And we need to reach young people, before they become violent. All criminals weren’t born criminals, they were kids once. People are not inherently violent, they are taught to be violent.”

While LaFayette is a man of high ideals, he is also pragmatic. Change costs money and he knows it: “We need public and private money to do this, to teach people, to hold courses. Insurance companies, for example, they have to invest in this because from a business standpoint, it will cost them less in the long run.”

At the very core of teaching non-violence is yet another lofty ideal that LaFayette wholeheartedly embraces: love. He’s not embarrassed to use the word, or the concept, he says, “because at the end of the day, it’s not whether you have a big house, a big car, a lot of land, it’s about love. You spend your whole life accumulating property, but in the end, what have you got? Six feet, that’s all.”

He says that when encountering violent people – and he’s encountered his share, with the scars to prove it – you have to see things from the other person’s point of view. You don’t condone it, he says, you just have to understand where they’re coming from and armed with that, you become non-violent yourself. Simple philosophy, complex to teach, and that’s why courses in non-violence run for weeks at a time, LaFayette says, adding, “It doesn’t happen overnight.”

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LaFayette (in aisle seat), in Mississippi with other civil rights workers on a freedom ride from Alabama in May 1961. The national guardsmen provided protection. Photo by Bruce Davidson/Magnum Photos Inc.

The center at URI is now laying the foundation. Courses in non-violence are taught here with more and more students taking them; a student from Lebanon is finishing up her doctorate in non-violence. Providence police have taken the courses; they’ve been conducted in Middletown, a community LaFayette says will be the first non-violent town in the state; and North Kingstown and South Kingstown are interested, he says. He wants to teach the course at the Rhode Island Training School, figuring if he can reach those violent kids, they can then take what they’ve learned to the streets and make them a safer place. “Kids with conflict have energy, and I can use that energy,” he says. “I find it less difficult to work with kids who’ve broken the law, they have experience and we can talk about and use that. The worst is apathy, kids who just sit there and don’t care.”

The key to working with violent people, he says, “is interpretation. It’s not experience alone that makes the person, it’s their interpretation of it. We make them reinterpret what they’ve done” and work with them to see why violence is not the answer.

LaFayette travels near and far spreading the word. In Miami-Dade County, he says, 3,000 cops have been trained and riots there have stopped. They’ve had similar results in Detroit and other rough cities, with LaFayette’s ultimate goal being the creation of institutes of non-violence in ten countries throughout the world, including this one at URI. The strategy is to train a cadre of people who can train others, a pyramid plan of non-violent philosophy spreading around the planet. Support in Rhode Island has been good, LaFayette says, the growing consensus being that “it is useful, viable, necessary – and urgent.” And LaFayette stands ready to provide the means to do it.

John Lewis, Georgia congressman, a long-time friend of LaFayette’s and a fellow civil rights activist, says LaFayette is the real deal, that he’s been very consistent over the years: “It’s no show, this is part of his core belief. I’ve seen him grow up overnight, as many did in the ’60s, and in those days he displayed unbelievably raw courage.”

But is LaFayette’s current mission an anti-climax compared to the dramatic change he, Lewis, and others in the movement brought about during the civil rights era? “No,” says Lewis. “It’s a continuum, he’s playing the same role on a much larger scale. He’s not getting arrested or beaten, but he’s taking what he learned from that and imparting it to other people.

“He’s a dreamer, he thinks it’s possible to create a community at peace with itself,” Lewis adds with unabashed admiration. “And if anyone can do it, Bernard LaFayette can.”

 

Bernard LaFayette Jr. should be dead.

In 1962, LaFayette, a founder and leader of SNCC (Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee), had insisted on going to Selma, Alabama, to organize black voter registration. SNCC leaders had crossed Alabama off the map, deeming it too dangerous, LaFayette says, but as a young buck of the movement, he saw the challenge and embraced it – and it nearly cost him his life.

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During the push to organize black voter registration, LaFayette was badly beaten and almost killed by two men on June 12, 1963, in the driveway of his Selma, Alabama, home. Photo by Alex Brown

On June 12, 1963, LaFayette was coming home from a mass meeting at about 10 p.m. He pulled into his driveway and was approached by two white men asking for a push of their allegedly broken-down car. LaFayette agreed and when his back was turned, one of the men, a good old boy weighing around 270 pounds, bashed his skull with the butt of a gun. LaFayette went down, bloodied, but struggled back up. He was beaten down again, and by the third time, LaFayette screamed for his neighbor, a black man, who came out wielding a shotgun. LaFayette told him not to shoot, knowing that a black man shooting a white man in 1963 Selma was tantamount to a death sentence. The white men drove off. LaFayette, with three holes in his head and a few cracked ribs, later found out he was part of an assassination plot – one that cost civil rights worker Medger Evers his life that same night in Mississippi.

In Nashville in 1960, during a sit-in to force city restaurants to desegregate lunch counters, LaFayette was beaten to the ground by twelve cabbies whom he’d calmly tried to pass to make a phone call. “I guess I got knocked down eight times, and eight times I got up, brushed myself off and said, ‘Excuse me, I have to use the phone,’ ” LaFayette says, eyes fixed on the past as he stares at a wall, explaining it to me. “What people don’t understand, you don’t just stand there and take it, you’re fighting to win in terms of self-discipline and winning them over.”

For violent people to win, he says, “they have to reduce you to less than human. So you do the most human thing – face them, talk to them – and try to love them. I looked at them, imagined their own violent childhood. Then I just walked through them,” he says. “They moved out of the way when they realized they couldn’t win, and I walked right through them.”

LaFayette was with Martin Luther King that morning in 1968 when King was later assassinated. LaFayette was flying to Washington, and King decided to stay in Memphis. LaFayette heard King was shot when he got to D.C., but didn’t think he would die.

“Martin Luther King always said there was so much work to do,” LaFayette says, “that there wasn’t time to die.”

Asked if he had a death wish after all the violence, the beatings, the arrests, the hate and intimidation of racist whites, LaFayette shook his head.

“No. If we were extraordinary in any way, it’s that we overcame the fear of death,” he says of himself and others of the movement. “The greatest fear of all was to live in those conditions and do nothing. When you’re doing something to make a difference, it is one of the most fulfilling things you can do. My fulfillment is this and getting other people to do it.”

LaFayette is quick to point out, and repeatedly, that the movement was not strictly made up of blacks. “White people were in it, too, and white people died,” he says, including Episcopal seminarian Jon Daniels of New Hampshire. Daniels got in the way of a shotgun blast meant for a young black woman in Fort Deposit, Alabama, in 1965, fired by a white deputy sheriff – who was later acquitted by an all-white jury.

That kind of commitment to a cause, whether by blacks or white, is what kept LaFayette going during those dangerous days, and what keeps him going now. Covering the civil rights movement at the time was David Halberstam of the New York Times, Pulitzer Prize-winning writer and author of many books, including 1998’s “The Children.” In the book, which covers that turbulent time, Halberstam writes that LaFayette was nicknamed “Little Gandhi” by fellow activist Jim Farmer, based on LaFayette’s incredible poise in the face of adversity.

“Bernard is a man of extraordinary ability and a high degree of personal motivation,” Halberstam reflects now. “All his life, people underestimated him. He’s a very gentle, very low key, very compelling man.”

Asked if LaFayette’s dream of a peaceful world is too idealistic, Halberstam warns people not to discount it.

“I don’t think he doubts his beliefs, and even if he’s not successful, he’s driven by the idea that this is a better way,” Halberstam says. “He is one of the bravest people I’ve ever known, and he believes in this. And I’ve learned to never, ever underestimate someone with that kind of faith.”

Trying to interview LaFayette during a day of constant travel is learning to talk on the fly. I do manage to get him at his desk for a couple of hours, prompting his assistant, Marie A. Cobleigh, to say, “He’s been here three months and this is the longest I’ve seen him in one place.”

We meet with Beth Kunce, URI grad and research associate for the state Commission on Race and Police-Community Relations, and she and LaFayette discuss the course of action for a series of public hearings. We have lunch with Tom Morin, URI professor of Hispanic studies and chairman of Latin American studies at the school, and he and LaFayette talk about the culture of violence in that area of the world, what needs to be done, and how they’ll do it. They’ll start by scheduling a conference in Mexico. Later, we head to the office of Dr. Cynthia M. Hamilton, head of African-American studies at URI, to discuss a course on the civil rights movement. Having a child of the movement in the midst of URI is a godsend, and LaFayette naturally agrees to take part.

There’s a trip downtown to meet with Armeather Gibbs, director of community relations for the governor, to talk about the United Nations’ declaration promoting a culture of peace. And not coincidentally, we also talk about how to get the governor to fund bus trips for Rhode Island kids to the U.N.  We meet with Richard M. McAuliffe Jr., Congressman Patrick J. Kennedy’s assistant in Pawtucket, who vows Kennedy’s help in the cause, especially, as LaFayette points out, in Colombia, where there is a school named after Kennedy’s uncle and late president, John F. Kennedy.

During our travels I ask about the accidental shooting death of Cornell Young by Providence police, and if the police force and indeed the entire state is racist. Ever a diplomat, LaFayette defers comment until “all the studies are done and I know more about it.” There are more meetings, more calls, more promises, prompting him to joke, “You know what they say about blacks being lazy? Well, it isn’t true,” and in the midst of it all I pull from LaFayette his earliest recollections of racism that have driven him to all this.

In Tampa, Florida, where he grew up, LaFayette recalls being in a stopped car with his uncle at the wheel, and being rear-ended by a white man. Police ticketed the uncle for stopping too short – even though they weren’t even moving. And he remembers at age eight the humiliation he and his grandmother felt when they tried to jump into the back door of a moving trolley driven by a white man – after paying the fare up front. He made it and like a sword cleaving him in two, LaFayette says, he watched helplessly as his grandmother tumbled to the ground, and he had to decide whether to stay on or jump off to help. He jumped off.

“I told myself when I get grown, I’m gonna do something to change this,” he says now. “And I couldn’t wait to get grown.”

He knew that if a black person so much as bumped a white on the sidewalk, “your life could change in an instant.” His folks always taught him to stand up for himself while at the same time warning him “don’t get in trouble with white people.” The dichotomy and incredible unfairness stung and shaped him into who he is today, a small, kindly black man with a steely determination borne of having helped make a nation painfully and sometimes fatally live up to the constitutional boast of being a place where all men are created equal. On our last day together, LaFayette parks legally because now, noticing that construction is nearing the closed-off lot, it makes sense. There is no need for civil disobedience this day, but there will be others. In a comparatively young country still struggling to get it right, there will always be others. And if necessary, LaFayette will be civilly disobedient to effect what he believes in.

“It’s that ordinary folks can do extraordinary things,” LaFayette says with a gentle smile when I ask him what his legacy will be. “You don’t have to be somebody special.”