The Common Good
May 2011

Freedom Fighter

by Jeannie Choi, Bernard Lafayette | May 2011

Bernard Lafayette, a leader in the civil rights movement and teacher of nonviolence, discusses lunch counter sit-ins, Martin Luther King Jr., and the challenges and victories of nonviolent ...

In 1958, Bernard Lafayette was 19 years old and a student at American Baptist College in Nashville, Tennessee, when his life changed. Dragged to a nonviolence training session by his friend John Lewis (who later became a member of Congress), Lafayette learned the methods and techniques of nonviolent protest. These sessions catapulted Lafayette into the civil rights movement. Lafayette was arrested in the lunch counter sit-ins in Nashville, and in 1960 was one of the founding members of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. After Martin Luther King Jr.'s death, Lafayette continued his long career as a practitioner and trainer of nonviolence, opening nonviolence training centers around the world. In this interview with Sojourners web editor Jeannie Choi, Lafayette documents his progress from a young student of nonviolence during the civil rights movement to an international nonviolence trainer, equipping agents of peace and protest throughout the world.

Freedom Fighter
Freedom Fighter

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Jeannie Choi: How did you get involved in the civil rights movement?
Bernard Lafayette: Jim Lawson, who was a chaplain and a divinity student at Vanderbilt University, started workshops on nonviolence at First Baptist Nashville. John Lewis and I were good friends, and he was the one who persuaded me to come to those workshops. I was a little reluctant because I didn't have time; I was a student and had a couple jobs on campus and a job downtown during the lunch hour washing dishes. But through the training, I learned to see the world through another person's eyes. That was an important step in my personal development.

What methods were used to train you in nonviolence?

Myles Horton, who was in charge of the Highlander Folk School at the time, would always ask provocative questions that got us to think and analyze. At one point, he started making some racist comments like, Why do you black people want to be eating with whites? Don't you enjoy being by yourself? I started challenging him and arguing! Now I laugh at how I responded to that. But I learned so much from that experience. The entire training program was to get people to think about how to put yourself in another person’s position and see the world through their eyes. That was so helpful for me in being able to embrace nonviolence.

We practiced "loving, not judging" your opponent, but thinking about the fact that there was a reason your opponent behaves the way they do. It's important to understand that if you want to bring about change. We learned that the idea is not just to get rights, but to behave in such a way that we would win our opponents over. That was the difference between simply demanding your rights and the goals of the civil rights movement: We were concerned about others.

Where did the ideas for the lunch counter sit-ins come from?

There had been sit-ins before by the NAACP, and in Oklahoma there were some high school kids who had also staged sit-ins. So we mobilized a group of students who had already been training in Nashville, and we went downtown to stage a sit-in to desegregate the restaurants. In fact, I used to work at one of the restaurants where we staged a sit-in!

That first day of the sit-ins, I was supposed to be a coordinator and liaison. My job was to observe what was happening from one lunch counter establishment to another and to make sure everything was covered. But it turned out that the very place that the arrests took place, I got pulled in to take the arrested person's place. The restaurant owners tried to get the rest of the students out by locking the doors, but we knew we had to get back there and get on those stools. I remember the students rushed back in to be arrested, and I was standing there and got pulled in. So I was among the first group of students who were arrested in Nashville.

Why were the sit-ins successful?

In our movement we were not just talking about protest -- we were talking about change. We knew that you can’t bring about change unless you accomplish one goal, and that is to win the sympathy and support of the majority. The key to our success was the training. We had anticipated hostility so, in our role-play training sessions, we acted out the ways we thought people would respond. We acted out "turning the other cheek" and thinking about other people and not yourself. It's so interesting that our role play was really re-enacted on the real scene.

One morning when I was coming back from an all night sit-in, I was beaten by some cab drivers. I had gone to a phone booth to call someone to pick us up, and a group of drivers pulled me out of the phone booth and proceeded to beat me up. I stood there and when they would knock me down, I would get back up again. I remembered that I needed to think about them, the conditions they grew up under, and I tried to imagine what their lives were like, and why they would feel that way toward black people. So you try to muster enough love in yourself to have love toward them as human beings, and you also believe that they can change. "Turning the other cheek" is not simply a physical thing. It's where they show you their worst side, and you show them your better side.

Did you ever think you were going to die during the nonviolent protests?

Yes. In fact, when we left for the freedom rides, we knew that death was a possibility so we wrote wills just in case we didn't come back. But you have to consider not how you’re going to die, but how you're going to live. You have to live for a purpose and your life has to be meaningful, and you have to be doing those things that are most important to you in your life, rather than being wholly concerned about death.

The only fear I had in the movement was not being able to bring about change in time for my grandparents to experience going out and being treated like human beings at a lunch counter. All their lives they lived in a segregated situation, humiliated, so I wanted change to happen fast. That was my only fear -- that I was not going to see the day when they would be able to enjoy freedom.

How did you meet Martin Luther King?

I met Dr. King one summer in Miami, where the Congress of Racial Equality had an interracial action workshop. I attended the conference as a representative of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. During a break from the conference, King was sitting alone by a pool and I went over and sat down and started talking with him. I had about two hours alone with him. At the time, I was studying for the ministry at American Baptist College, so I felt there was a connection and a real spiritual moment with King. From then on, every movement he was a part of, if it was possible for me, I would go and join it, and from time to time, he would call on me to come and do things. Toward the end of his life, he appointed me the national coordinator for the Poor People's Campaign; my job was to get people on board. I spent a lot of personal time with King up until his death. In fact, the morning he died, I was with him in Memphis.

What did he say to you that final day?

The very last thing he said to me, once we finished our discussion about what we should do at a press conference, was, "Bernard, the next thing we need to do is internationalize and institutionalize nonviolence." About five hours later, he was assassinated.

I had to put together his idea to institutionalize and internationalize nonviolence on my own. This is what I've been doing for the past 40 years -- teaching nonviolence and putting programs in other institutions and centers around the world. Today, we have about 22 different centers for training people in nonviolence, and I have been committed to applying the concepts behind nonviolence in institutions around the world.

Share a success story from one of your training centers.

In Colombia, we established a nonviolence center in one of their prisons. Before we came, an average of six prisoners were killed per day. They asked us to train the prisoners in nonviolence. As a result, there was a decrease in killings in the jail. Outside the jail, the homicide rate dropped drastically as well. They have built into their legislature a call for nonviolence to be taught in educational institutions throughout the country.

What do you think about the nonviolent protests that have occurred in the Middle East lately, particularly in Egypt?

Egypt served as a great example for the rest of the world. The people of Egypt showed that they can sustain a movement. It was not just a protest -- it was a movement, because they continued to take a stand against the injustices they were experiencing. Some people were killed, yes, but death cannot overcome a nonviolent movement; nonviolence is a greater force. In fact, less people are killed using nonviolence than violence.

As a person of faith, how do you think the faith community should respond to the oppression of other people in their nation and around the world?

I feel that the faith community can either be concerned about individual salvation and their route to eternity, or they can be, as Martin Luther King said, focused on the well-being of people as human beings, regardless of their faith or ethnicity or differences. Some folks are so heavenly bound they’re no earthly good. That does not square with my understanding of faith and what our responsibilities are as the faith community.

I feel that the faith community should be at the forefront. So it was with the movement. We had just about every faith involved in the marches and demonstrations and struggles that King led. Many people put their lives on the line. We know the people who died, but we’ll never be able to count or calculate the people who were willing to die and took action that could have meant death for them.

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