Freedom rider speaks to campus

Aaron Mudd

A freedom rider and civil rights activist shared stories with WKU students about his life-long struggle to establish a nonviolent international movement. 

Activist Bernard Lafayette Jr. shared stories of his work with the civil rights movement, during which he said he was jailed 27 times and kidnapped twice. He spoke to students about his work in Selma, Ala. to help disenfranchised African-Americans.

“A lot of people experience going to jail and marching and participating in demonstrations,” he said. “The most important thing we’re talking about here is what lessons did you take away from those experiences, and how do you put those lessons into a learning pattern?”

Lafayette was invited to speak by Eric Bain-Selbo, head of the Department of Philosophy & Religion. Bain-Selbo estimated that a mix of 50 to 60 students and faculty came to hear the activist.

Lafayette is visiting Bowling Green, Ky. to attend the Southern Kentucky Book Fest, held on April 26. Lafayette wrote a book with Kathryn Lee Johnson entitled “In Peace and Freedom: My Journey in Selma.”

“In Peace and Freedom is an account of how the Selma movement got started,” he said. “There are many accounts of the atrocities that took place and the marches that took place, but I felt some sense of responsibility because most people didn’t know how the Selma movement got started in the first place.”

Lafayette’s work with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee took him into rural areas of the South, where local African Americans felt too intimidated to vote.

“They were not welcomed by the people in that community to participate in the voting process,” he said. “So our job, as directors of the various projects, was to get more people going down to attempt to register to vote to establish a case that they were being denied. Can’t prove people were denied if they never tried.”

According to American journalist and historian David Halberstam’s “The Children,” Lafayette was able to organize with other activists a larger march on Montgomery Ala. This ultimately pressured former president Lyndon Baines Johnson to push the 1965 Voting Rights Act, which prohibited voter discrimination.

But Lafayette paid a price for his successes.

While Lafayette was on a march through the mountains of Colombia, he was kidnapped by FARC, an armed group part of a conflict that continues to this day.

After a few hours trekking through the jungle together Lafayette sat down and demanded some food.

“I knew that the statistics show that if you’re kidnapped, and they don’t kill you within two hours, you have some running room,” he said.

His kidnappers did not know how to handle adamant Lafayette.

“Unusual but genuine behavior has the potential to arrest the conscience of your assailant,” he said. “Now that is unusual for somebody who is kidnapped to demand that they eat, but it was very genuine cause I was hungry.”

Ultimately, his kidnappers led him out of the jungle on horseback.

Barrett Wright, a Glasgow graduate student, asked Lafayette for advice about how to conduct research. He wanted to know why people there did not resist oppression as openly as Lafayette did.

“One is you want to look at the earlier behavior of the dominant culture,” he said. “What you want to do is look at previous behavior and the response.”

Wright said that what Lafayette suggested was what he was discovering in his research. He said that whites and blacks formed a sort of parental relationship and the domination of another group doesn’t always have to be forceful.

“The methods that he shared with me today was definitely to look at the landscape of the whites that were the dominant culture, look at them, what was their makeup,” Wright said. “See that’s one element that I hadn’t really looked into yet.”

Lafayette worked with Martin Luther King Jr. in his work to organize movements. Lafayette quoted the last words he remembers King telling him before King was assassinated. They are words that have guided him all these years.

“He said ‘Now Bernard the next movement we’re gonna have is to institutionalize and internationalize nonviolence’,” he said. “Those last words I had from Martin Luther King, five hours later he was assassinated. So I was left with getting ready to prepare to institutionalize nonviolence and internationalize it, and that’s what I’ve been doing since April 1968.”