“Let us all work together to help all human beings achieve dignity and equality; to build a greener planet; and to make sure no one is left behind.” — UN Secretary-General, Ban Ki-moon
Today is the International Day of Peace, a day devoted to strengthening the ideals of peace, both within and among all nations and peoples, and a day to acknowledge those who have made significant sacrifices to help end conflict and injustice for the betterment of the entire human race.
Dedicated to working toward social change through nonviolence and peace since his teens, Bernard LaFayette Jr. has been a civil rights activist for over fifty years. He was a co-founder of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), a leader in the Nashville lunch counter sit-ins, a Freedom Rider, an associate of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), and the national coordinator of the Poor People’s Campaign. At the age of twenty-two, Lafayette assumed the directorship of the Alabama Voter Registration Campaign in Selma—a city that had previously been removed from the campaign’s list due to the dangers of operating there.
In his compelling memoir, written with Kathryn Lee Johnson, LaFayette shares his experience as one of the primary organizers of the Selma voting rights movement and the Selma-to-Montgomery marches. When he arrived in 1963, Selma was a quiet, rural town. By 1965, it had made its mark in history and was recognized as the site of one of the most important victories for social change in the nation.
In honor of the International Day of Peace, here is an excerpt from In Peace and Freedom: My Journey in Selma. Important and powerful, LaFayette’s account presents a necessary perspective on the civil rights movement in the 1960s from one of its greatest leaders.
Selma, Alabama. What was it about this little southern town that sparks the question from so many people, “Why go to Selma? You can’t bring about any change there.” I wondered about this sentiment as I made plans to spend the next couple of years there as Director of the Alabama Voter Registration Campaign for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC, commonly referred to as “snick”). The Southern Regional Council’s (SRC) “Voter Education Project” headed by Randolph Blackwell, was a recipient of grants from the Field Foundation and Taconic Foundation. They sponsored projects aimed at increasing the number of voters in primarily black populated counties throughout Alabama, Mississippi, Arkansas, and Georgia. The SRC was an organization founded in 1919 that was committed to fighting for racial justice and informing public policy on issues of democratic rights and equality.
President John F. Kennedy’s administration had an influence in funding the voting project, “deliverables” as they called it. Because Kennedy was elected unquestionably by the marginal votes from blacks, his administration was committed to increasing support to help blacks vote. In President Kennedy’s inaugural address he said, “We observe today not a victory of party but a celebration of freedom–symbolizing an end as well as a beginning–signifying renewal as well as change” and also quoted from the Bible, to “undo the heavy burdens . . . (and) let the oppressed go free.”
President Kennedy’s address gave the black people in America hope. His leadership inspired and motivated a new generation of blacks to press for change since we had White House support for the first time. I met President Kennedy while he was campaigning in New York. I was at a SNCC meeting and our entire group went to hear him speak. After the speech he shook our hands and gave SNCC recognition and support. So I felt a personal connection with this young president. The way that he spoke out for civil rights and recognized Dr. King authenticated what the Movement was doing. Although many black citizens had lived in segregation in second class conditions, now, as a result of President Kennedy’s stand against discrimination, we felt that we were doing the right thing, the real American way. We were ready to continue our struggle, to accomplish as much as possible under President Kennedy’s leadership.
Many southern blacks had two pictures on the wall, one was Jesus and one was Kennedy. Even though most were Baptists, they didn’t care that Kennedy was Catholic. Although his voting record on civil rights as a senator was not strong, he did recognize that blacks were supporting him and he looked at ways to gain more black votes.
I felt that Kennedy, as president of the United States, should advocate for the idea of the government as a democracy of the people and for the people. It is the president’s responsibility to take action to remove those impediments that prevent citizens, particularly disenfranchised people, from participating in government. Kennedy certainly voiced his support to protect those rights, as citizens most prominently remembered in his “Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country” speech. He challenged us as young people to have a commitment. As a civil rights activist, I never considered myself a rebel against the nation, never anti-American. I was proud of my country and wanted to work to help it be the best, and for it to live up to its creed and purpose. I felt what I was doing was of service to my country. I would have volunteered in the military, and considered becoming a Chaplain in the Air Force. However, the nonviolence movement gave me a way to serve my country in a better way, a positive way, a more peaceful way.
I had spent the last two years participating in Nashville lunch counter sit-ins, riding busses across the south as a Freedom Rider, working with the Jackson Mississippi Nonviolent Movement and was editor of the Jackson Movement Newsletter. I went to get my assignment as director of a campaign from James Forman, the executive secretary of SNCC. I had always had a great respect for Jim and recognized that he was effective in his work with SNCC. He had maturity and experience, and most important he had a great rapport with students. He knew the importance of students taking leadership, to challenge injustices and to bring about change. Not only was he an administrator, but he joined us on the front line because of his personal passion for the cause. He was a leader who truly forged the way. In some instances Jim was more radical than the students. He had both the southern experience of Mississippi and the northern exposure of Chicago.
But that day Jim told me, “I’m sorry, Bernard, but we don’t have any directorships available at this time.”
I simply couldn’t believe that all the directorships had been assigned, especially since Jim knew I was waiting for one. I said, “Now Jim, remember I helped to raise the $30,000 bond money for three SNCC workers. You promised me a directorship position when I returned, but now you’re insisting that nothing is available? This isn’t right.” Dion Diamond, Chuck McDew, and Bob Zellner, were in jail in Louisiana for helping blacks register to vote. I was sent to Detroit and Chicago to raise money to help get them released.
He said, “You could work with Charles Sherrod in southwest Georgia, Bob Moses in Mississippi or Bill Hansen in Arkansas.” Even though I was only 22, I was determined and made it clear, stating emphatically, “I don’t want to be an assistant director, I’m ready to be a director of a project and you should keep your promise.”
Jim said, “Bernard, the only project left is the Alabama Voter Registration Campaign in Selma, but we just removed Selma from the list. So, it’s out of the question. Two groups of SNCC workers just returned from scouting the city and reported, ‘The white folks are too mean and the black folks are too afraid.’”
Despite the fact that Selma was centrally located in Alabama, they marked a bold black X across Selma on the wall map of Alabama. However, Jim said, “Even though we’ve rejected Selma, if you want to, you can go there, check it out and see what you think.” Alabama was infamous for the suppression of black voting rights and with its central location and large numbers of blacks, it seemed to me like the perfect location to headquarter the state office for voter registration.
I enthusiastically responded, “I’ll take Selma, sight unseen.” That is how I became director of the Alabama Voter Registration Campaign.