Calm Before the Storm 

Bernard LaFayette's Quiet Crusade to Save American Baptist College

Bernard LaFayette's Quiet Crusade to Save American Baptist College

It was the late 1940s, and 7-year-old Bernard LaFayette Jr. was living with his family in a segregated Tampa, Fla. It was a time when blacks were still forced to ride in the back of city streetcars. First, however, they had to deposit their coins in a box at the front of the car, then step back down onto the street and reboard at a side door. The drivers were known to pull off before the black passengers could reboard—sometimes even catching a passenger’s arm in the closing door as the car pulled away, dragging him down the street.

On what seemed to be an ordinary day, young Bernard and his heavyset grandmother deposited their fares and then began trotting the short distance to the rear of the car. “I was running ahead of her so I could hold the door, and her heel caught in the cobblestone and she tripped and fell, twisting her ankle,” he recalls. “There she was, and the streetcar took off with our money. A lump came to my throat and I was helpless. That moment I decided that if I had the opportunity to do something about this condition I would, because it was so inhumane.”

Bernard LaFayette Jr. had discovered his mission in life.

It would be another 12 years before his crusade would get under way in earnest. But in the 1960s, LaFayette, a lanky, soft-spoken young man with the physique of a No. 2 pencil, emerged as a major figure in the burgeoning civil rights movement in the South. Devoted to nonviolence, he led voter-registration movements in Selma, Ala., and supervised sit-ins at downtown Nashville lunch counters. Repeatedly beaten and imprisoned, he was convinced he would probably have to give his life for his cause, but he was not afraid to get his hands dirty—even bloody, as long as the blood was his own. “Of all the people in the movement, [LaFayette] was the easiest one to underestimate,” says David Halberstam, who covered the Nashville sit-ins for The Tennessean in the 1960s, and who recalls those days in his latest book, The Children. “He’s a very quiet American hero.”

Today, at 57, LaFayette’s body and face have rounded, and his hair and moustache are flecked with gray. He serves as pastor of Progressive Baptist Church on 12th Avenue South, where his 200-member congregation, drawn largely from nearby housing projects, includes a number of teen mothers and foster children whose fathers are in jail. But it’s LaFayette’s other job, as president of his alma mater, American Baptist College, that presents him with his most immediate challenge. The school has been central to the history of the civil rights struggle, and it remains a major training ground for black ministers, but the college is mired in debt—LaFayette must raise $117,000 just to keep the doors open through the summer. What’s more, ABC is associated with the National Baptist Convention, and the school’s image has suffered in the wake of the highly publicized scandal surrounding the convention’s president, Henry Lyons.

“You lose that school and you lose a historic jewel,” says John Seigenthaler, chairman emeritus of the Freedom Forum and himself a participant in the civil rights movement as an aide to U.S. attorney general Robert Kennedy. Nevertheless, the very future of the legendary institution is at stake.

LaFayette puts in 80-hour work weeks. He spends about six hours each day on school business, but the rest of his time goes to his ministry and to projects focused on violence in schools, police brutality, and the problems faced by inner-city youth. His lunches are usually working lunches, and he makes himself available for late-night counseling sessions when there’s a death or a divorce. His constantly changing schedule keeps staffers at his school and church frantically scrambling to keep him on course. A recent day’s agenda called for him to have breakfast in Detroit, lunch in Atlanta, and dinner in Miami.

“I’m sure there are times when he lies awake at night and wonders, ‘How am I going to solve these problems?’ ” says Pete Seeger, the folk singer, who met LaFayette during the civil rights movement. “But when you usually see him, he’s pretty calm and in control. He ain’t gonna quit.”

A number of LaFayette’s associates in the civil rights movement have gone on to greater fame. His college roommate John Lewis, for example, is now a U.S. congressman from Georgia. LaFayette has a Ed.D. from Harvard, yet he works out of a nondescript office at American Baptist. His Harvard diploma, a key to the city of Tuskegee, and a photo of LaFayette with Nelson Mandela hang on walls where the paint is peeling. His salary is $50,000 a year.

LaFayette remains low-key, even if there is sometimes a mischievous glint in his eye. “We could go off and get some nice-paying jobs and a Mercedes and a nice house, but so what?” he says. “A life of commitment is much more enriched, exciting and stimulating, and even entertaining. Martin Luther King said, unless you’ve found something in life that’s so dear and so sweet that you’re willing to give your life for it, then you haven’t lived.”

Judged by any standard, LaFayette has lived a full life. It would seem that he might even be ready to rest on his laurels. Instead, he has taken on the challenge of saving American Baptist. This, he says, is his “postgraduate course in faith.”

Founded in 1924 and operated by the National Baptist Convention USA, American Baptist College sits on what its 150 students call “Holy Hill.” The 53-acre campus, situated along a murky-brown stretch of the Cumberland River near Interstate 265, makes a stark contrast to the convention’s towering headquarters. At ABC, the lack of funds has made maintenance a luxury. The deteriorating dormitories are plagued with mildewed drywall, peeling paint, overflowing toilets, and rusted pipes. The dull, black linoleum floors have not been replaced since LaFayette was a student at the college. The administration building, its walls painted in government-issue powder blue, looks like an old health clinic.

In February, the fire marshal’s office cited the school for 16 code violations. In the men’s dorm, Griggs Hall, which was recently designated a Tennessee Historical Site, students were forced to withstand the winter cold after a new $350,000 heating system malfunctioned, the result of improper installation.

The college’s decline seems a travesty, given ABC’s historic role in training black ministers, who are often the leaders in all aspects of their communities. “American Baptist College is to the church as Meharry Medical College was to the field of medicine,” says Rev. Will Campbell, the Baptist minister, author, and veteran of the civil rights movement. “A lot of the foot soldiers, the people in the trenches in these Baptist churches, up in the hollers and the cities, have come through here.”

But ABC was also the cradle of peaceful nonviolent protest in America. Perhaps no other college trained more leaders in the struggle against segregation; in addition to Lewis, LaFayette’s classmates included Jim Bevel, another pioneer in the movement. One of the poorest schools in America, it’s likely that ABC produced more important civil rights leaders than Fisk University and Tennessee State University, combined. “At a time when the black church was becoming the driving force of a larger social revolution taking place in the United States, American Baptist had become a magnet for many of the most talented and passionate young blacks in the country,” Halberstam writes in The Children. “For young blacks in small towns in the South, dreaming of doing something for their own people, did not in those days dream of going to Harvard or Yale or Stanford Law; they dreamt of going into the Baptist ministry. ...[American Baptist] was a place filled with political ferment and passion.”

When LaFayette assumed the ABC presidency in 1993, he didn’t know he was also assuming a $1 million deficit. After successfully raising the funds to overcome that obstacle, LaFayette suffered two more hits: In 1996, the Southern Baptist Convention stopped contributing to undergraduate schools, costing ABC $30,000 a month. And last year, the National Baptist Convention was unable to make its $50,000 monthly pledge, supposedly because of Lyons, who now faces 61 federal charges, including tax evasion, extortion, money laundering, and bank fraud. Some contributors have refused to make any more donations to the convention or to ABC until Lyons is removed.

The college actually needs an income of $2 million a year, but it is now operating on a $1.5 million annual budget. Since October, when the National Baptist Convention began decreasing its pledge payments, some members of the college’s staff and faculty have gone without pay for as long as two months at a time. “Bare bones is an understatement,” says LaFayette. “We have people doing three jobs. We call it right-sizing.” The school has an endowment of $500,000; he says it needs twice that much immediately—and a $10 million endowment campaign over the next 10 years.

“If we don’t get the money we need, the school definitely will be in danger [of closing],” LaFayette says. But he is confident the nation’s black Baptists will not let that happen. “All we have to do is make sure they understand that it’s their school,” he says. “We have an opportunity to pull out of this, but we’ve got to have a lot of support right now.”

Seigenthaler says LaFayette has worked miracles, simply by keeping the school afloat for the past five years. And LaFayette, too, is convinced that miracles have played a part in keeping the doors open. “There were times when I was at the bank at 11:30, trying to figure out how I was going to get a loan to make payroll at noon,” he says. “I’m standing in line making a partial deposit, and the clerk says, ‘Oh Dr. LaFayette, a wire just came in, and one of the church organizations sent enough money to make the payroll.’

“I’m convinced that God wants this institution to survive. Despite the setbacks, it’s going to make it.”

If any human being can save American Baptist, his friends say, it’s LaFayette. “The man is so bright, so positive, so patient,” John Lewis writes in his new book, Walking With the Wind. “I admire that stick-to-it-iveness so much, that willingness to be out there, to sacrifice, to believe somehow, some way, things will get better.

“It was that kind of faith that fueled the movement, but in a way I believe what Bernard is trying to do today at American Baptist is even harder.... Bernard toils in obscurity on that lonesome hilltop above Nashville—no glamour, no glory. He could be doing something else for much more reward, but instead he is there, hanging in, day in and day out. Honestly, I don’t know if I could do that.”

“He just gives of himself to the point that I often wonder how he can continue to go on, yet he does,” says one of LaFayette’s close friends. “He receives his strength and his stamina from some source. He is one of those people who is in the world but he’s not of this world.”

In the words of John Seigenthaler, LaFayette is, quite simply, “a saint.”

LaFayette’s father was a baker and steel mill worker; his mother supervised hotel maids. He remembers a childhood that seems, in many ways, perfect. He woke up to smells of Cuban breads and fresh coffee beans; he could hop out a window and land directly on the soft beach sand below. “I was the only child for seven years, so I was Numero Uno,” LaFayette recalls. (Eventually, he had to share the attention with a brother and five sisters.) “I had two of everything. I didn’t open some of my Christmas toys until July. I didn’t know we were low income until I got to college.”

The community was ethnically mixed, so he spent his afternoons playing with Cubans, Jews, and Italians. But LaFayette quickly learned to avoid the white children who called him “nigger,” stuck out their tongues at him, and tried to spit on him. When he was sent to the store for a loaf of bread, he would sprint home, the bread tucked under his arm and the change balled up in his fist. He remembers his parents telling him, “Stand up for your rights, don’t be a coward and respect yourself,” but he also remembers them telling him “Don’t get into any trouble with white folks.” “How do you do that,” LaFayette still wonders, “and keep your dignity?”

His parents taught him, “Words don’t hurt you.” But now, after decades at the forefront of the civil rights struggle, LaFayette says, “I’m absolutely sure words can hurt you, sometimes deeper than physical wounds.”

LaFayette’s first act of civil disobedience was a subtle one. At age 8, he began selling coffee to local merchants for 20 cents a cup, earning a 50 percent profit. At that time in Tampa, it was illegal for blacks to sit at the all-white lunch counters, but when LaFayette came in to sell his coffee, he would position himself squarely on a stool. Since it was 6 a.m. and he was the only non-employee in the restaurant, he avoided confrontation. Still, he knew what he was doing. “It was a sense of defiance of the segregation laws, showing how ridiculous it was,” he explains. “You couldn’t change it, so you just sort of snickered at it. That was my way of snickering at it.”

Early on, LaFayette emerged as an over-achiever. The smartest boy in class, he was frequently chosen to speak at Mother’s Day celebrations and other church services. Then, when young Bernard was in the fourth grade, the LaFayette family moved to Philadelphia. Not only was he mocked for his Southern accent, he was demoted half a year. Tampa’s best-and-brightest found himself feeling embarrassed and isolated until a teacher began tutoring him at her home. Two years later, LaFayette was chosen to deliver the sixth-grade graduation address. The topic was “Living and Working Together”; LaFayette predicted the future integration of races and religions.

Growing up in Tampa, LaFayette had never had a white teacher, and he had developed a distrust of the police because he had seen them condone, and sometimes initiate, violence against blacks. But in Philadelphia’s integrated classrooms, the children sang patriotic songs. LaFayette became enamored with the nation and its founders.

He was astonished at the myriad of entertainment opportunities that were open to him. In Tampa, blacks had only been allowed to attend the Florida State Fair on Colored Children’s Day. That sort of restriction didn’t exist in Philadelphia. He was also puzzled by a schoolyard fight, in which a white boy hit another white boy who had just punched a black friend in the nose. “That was so confusing to me, that these people were friends, and it had nothing to do with color,” LaFayette recalls.

It was about the same time that LaFayette was engaged in the only fist fight of his life. In fourth grade, in order to survive the walk to school, he had joined the Parish Street Gang. LaFayette was appointed the gang’s “war counselor,” or attack strategist. In one encounter, he nearly killed another boy by repeatedly banging his head against the sidewalk. “It was a strange rush of feelings,” he remembers. “It was heroic in one sense because people went wild. He was a big guy and I was like David conquering Goliath, showing my manhood and prowess. I felt 10 feet tall, although I was a little skinny fellow who was too embarrassed to wear shorts.”

But the experience did not turn LaFayette into a street fighter. Instead, he says, it taught him that “human beings have the greatest capacity for good as well as the greatest capacity for evil. The potential is there; it’s conditions and environments and their response to leadership that determine the good they do or the evil.”

After the LaFayettes moved back to Tampa, Bernard became involved with the youth chapter of the NAACP. After he graduated from high school in 1960, he turned down a four-year journalism scholarship in order to attend ABC, which offered him $42 a month for tuition and $42 in spending money. Along with John Lewis, LaFayette began walking to meetings at Fisk, Clark Memorial Methodist Church, and First Baptist Church-Capitol Hill. At those meetings, protestors plotted their nonviolent strategies.

“I had always grown up in the church and struggled with the whole idea of turning the other cheek,” he recalls. “I could do that, but I was curious about how I would feel about the other person.”

But LaFayette, Lewis, and the others were also being introduced to the concept of the “social gospel,” which holds that the church is not just responsible for saving souls, visiting the sick, and conducting funerals. Instead, LaFayette explains, the social gospel required the church to “go beyond the four walls and be concerned with the court system, the school system, and fair practices in employment.”

In February 1960, LaFayette got his first assignment in the civil rights movement. He was to coordinate downtown sit-ins at five Nashville stores—Woolworth’s, McLel-lan’s, Grant’s, Cain-Sloan, and Kress’. Specifically, his job was “to visit all the different stores once the sit-ins started to see what was happening and keep people informed. If there were people being arrested at one place, we would all go over there.” On the second Saturday of the sit-ins, LaFayette was arrested. Twenty-six more arrests would follow. To get through his incarcerations, he would recite Rudyard Kipling’s “If” or he would sing the civil rights anthem “Hold On.”

“We were excited because we knew the meaning of what we were doing,” LaFayette says. “We were changing history and we were determined to succeed and we were not going to stop until the segregation practices were ended.” But the young protesters remained committed to principles of nonviolence. “We realized that we had triggered the emotions of many whites who attacked us, and that these were the pains of surgery. If you are trying to remove some kind of malignant cancer in society, there was going to be some bloodshed, and we said let it be our blood. There was a sense of nobility, self-sacrificing, a sense of humility even.”

As one of the famed Freedom Riders, LaFayette took part in civil rights campaigns in Charleston, Birmingham, and Chicago. In Selma, he spearheaded the campaign for voters’ rights. But it was also there that he received the most severe of his three beatings. On June 12, 1963, two white men asked him to help them with their stalled ’57 Chevy. When LaFayette bent over to examine the car, one of the men slammed a gun into his head. LaFayette remained conscious, but blood was pouring into his eyes. By shouting, he attracted a black neighbor, who came out of his house, armed with a shotgun. A few days later, LaFayette learned that the attack had been part of the same Ku Klux Klan conspiracy that had claimed the life of Medgar Evers in Mississippi that same night.

Even before the beating, LaFayette was convinced the movement would cost him his life. “I couldn’t see any way out,” he insists. “I was putting myself into harm’s way by choice.” To a certain extent, he admits, that recklessness was a simple evidence of his youth. “Young people are risk takers,” he says. “If you say something might be dangerous, that’s not a deterrent.”

But LaFayette also says there was a more philosophical side to his actions. “Life cannot be lived to the fullest until you press your spirit against those forces that threaten life,” he says. “The greatest danger is to learn to co-exist with evil and come to the conclusion that there is nothing you can do about it. It’s worse than apathy; it becomes a form of self-annihilation, which means you are participating in your own death. We were more alive than we ever were when we were struggling in the movement and facing death.”

Dr. Martin Luther King appointed LaFayette national program coordinator for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. And LaFayette remembers being with King at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis the morning of King’s assassination. “It was almost like he had a premonition,” LaFayette says. “He was telling me things that I needed to do—like go back to school and prepare for the future because we were going to witness a period of violence, but this period of violence was going to run its course and people were going to become more receptive to nonviolence.”

LaFayette took King’s advice. He returned to ABC and earned a bachelor’s degree in 1969, becoming an ordained Baptist minister. He attended law school at Boston University for a year before entering Harvard, where he earned a master’s degree and a doctorate in education administration in the early 1970s. “Harvard reaffirmed what I already believed,” LaFayette says, “that the world could be changed.”

The next 10 years were devoted to a variety of jobs, in education and in churches. In the early ’80s, however, LaFayette became principal of Tuskegee Institute High School, in Tuskegee, Ala. It was a job no one else would take. The students were so unruly that assemblies were out of the question. They smoked pot in the littered hallways. It was predicted that peaceful little LaFayette would be run out of school in no time.

Instead, LaFayette turned the school around in a year, much to the displeasure of the school board, which did not approve of his tactics. His “stoop down” campaign required students to drop to the floor and pick up litter whenever he shouted, “Stoop down!” (The command eventually became a chant for the school’s cheerleaders.) If a boy drew back to hit a girl, LaFayette would say, “Even if you think about it, don’t do that.” Before long, “Don’t do that” was being chanted at basketball players when they committed a foul. A group of girls known as the Devils asked LaFayette to sponsor them; they were renamed LaFayette’s Angels. Nevertheless, the school board did not renew LaFayette’s contract.

That sort of setback has never discouraged LaFayette from promoting the philosophy of nonviolence. In addition to his day jobs, he has helped establish the U.S. Institute for Peace in Washington, D.C., as well as centers promoting nonviolence in New York, Florida, and Haiti. He has trained thousands of police officers in South Africa, Miami, Detroit, and Providence, R.I. His research has taken him to Egypt, Israel, Vietnam, Costa Rica, Panama, and other countries. Now he hopes to bring the principles of nonviolence to the million U.S. students who regularly carry guns to school. If they can talk through their conflicts, he reasons, they may be less likely to resort to violence.

Behind the wooden pulpit at Progressive Baptist, LaFayette is in his element. His sermons are, for the most part, extemporaneous; he speaks from experience and from the heart, mixing Greek terms with street slang, combining his Ivy League education with his downhome upbringing.

There was a time when some people thought he had lost the knack. About 20 years ago, LaFayette and his friend Will Campbell were attending a chaplains’ convention in Chicago when Campbell gave LaFayette a challenge. He said he was sure LaFayette could no longer preach in the melodic manner typical of many black ministers. LaFayette protested that he could still hold forth with the best of them. Campbell’s response was “No, you got that educated out of you at Harvard.”

Then, Campbell recalls, he was in the dorm shower one morning and heard LaFayette in a nearby stall, whooping and preaching: “I was boooorn a little bitty babyyy.” “It was one of the most fantastic sermons of grace I had ever heard in the old Southern traditional-black-preacher style,” Campbell says.

On a recent Sunday morning at Progressive Baptist, LaFayette’s speaking voice was soft, often scratchy, sometimes hesitant, but his preaching style was powerful, charismatic, animated. Dressed in a neatly tailored black double-breasted suit, he never glanced at his prepared notes. Swaying side to side, he sometimes preached to the seven-member, all-woman choir. At other times he moved from behind the pulpit to stand in front of the first pew, gesturing with one hand and leaning against the pew with the other.

At his peak, no microphone was necessary. Like a Broadway performer, his timing was impeccable. He peppered his serious message with jokes that had the congregation roaring.

This was a classic Bernard LaFayette sermon. It was about love, not condemnation. He applied Paul’s message in 1 Corinthians to contemporary times, preaching on marriage, friendship, jealousy, and parenthood. “Violence is the language of the inarticulate,” he said, in a message that has not changed for well over 30 years. “We do violence when we don’t know how to talk. Our challenge is to understand we have to be patient. We have to talk and when talking doesn’t do any good, we have to keep on talking and ask God what to say. A little talking will take the place of a lot of beating.”

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