Their timing had to be right. Students sitting in at Nashville’s segregated lunch counters in 1960 knew they wouldn’t be served. They braced themselves for rejection, harassment, and ultimately, a date with a jail cell.
All the while, they watched the clock, making certain to stage protests in the early afternoon.
“If they hadn't put us in jail we wouldn't have had dinner,” remembers Dr. Bernard LaFayette, a Nashville Student Movement leader, more than 50 years later. “We always made sure we had marches and demonstrations early so we could be in jail by 5 p.m. That’s when they served dinner.”
LaFayette, now 70, is a Distinguished Senior Scholar-in-Residence at Emory University’s Candler School of Theology in Atlanta. On this day, though, he’s a tour guide on a chartered bus bound for Jackson, Miss. Before the bus reaches its final destination, there are stops in Tuskegee, Montgomery, and Selma, Ala. — all significant markers on the Deep South’s road from racial hatred and segregation to reconciliation.
LaFayette was a student at Nashville’s American Baptist Theological Seminary when he joined a movement that would define his life’s work. In 1961, he and other Nashville college students refused to let the Freedom Rides end after original riders narrowly escaped death when their bus was set afire by an angry mob in Anniston, Ala.
Some of the riders, whose numbers topped 400 by the year’s end, were severely beaten by angry mobs in Anniston, Montgomery and Birmingham. After the brutal attacks drew international news coverage, Mississippi authorities decided to deal with the Freedom Riders by jailing them on a charge of “breach of the peace.” By the time the rides ended, more than 300 Freedom Riders had been jailed in Parchman, the state’s maximum-security prison.
This month marks the 50th anniversary of the historic Freedom Rides, a movement that successfully ended segregation in interstate travel. Thirteen riders recruited by the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) left Washington, D.C. bound for New Orleans to test the enforcement of federal desegregation laws. A new film, reunions and a re-enactment of the rides by college students highlight the anniversary celebration.
This week in Jackson, more than 100 Freedom Riders have returned. They’ve been joined by political leaders, students and others who believe their struggle should serve as a call to action for today’s youth.
LaFayette has turned that celebration into a history lesson. The man who would go on to lead voting rights protests in Selma in 1963, and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s Poor People's campaign in 1968, isn't one to rest on his laurels. He holds these bus trips annually, so people can remember their responsibility for improving their own communities.
“Martin Luther King was accused of causing conflict, but sometimes conflict is the thing to do,” he says. “School bullying: The reason it exists is because people stand around and look. We have to teach them to stand up and say, ‘No — we don't accept that.’ We have to stand together. You have to mobilize folks in such a way they will stand with you.”
LaFayette has founded centers for nonviolent training and spread his message of Kingian nonviolence throughout the world. He and fellow trainers now work with the government of Nigeria to persuade war rebels to turn in their weapons and embrace nonviolence. In exchange, the government gives them job training and forgiveness of alleged war crimes.
Nigerian leaders credit LaFayette’s training in nonviolence with transforming the war torn region. To date, more than 25,000 people have received the training and embraced the strategies that transformed Nashville and other Southern cities in the 1960s.
Richard Tarlaian is a 63-year-old retired police officer from Providence, R.I., who works with the Connecticut Center for Nonviolence in Hartford. He’s been training people in nonviolent resistance for 15 years.
“It’s vitally important to understand what methods and strategies have worked historically,” he says. “One of the challenges is to get people today to understand it’s still relevant and it still works.”
A key message in the training is to attack the forces of evil, not the individual. Instead of looking at gang members, Tarlaian says, people should address the conditions that produce violent gangs. The center offers training for a variety of groups, from schools to prisons.
“Nonviolence is about looking at root causes,” he says. “We teach people to do that.”
Tarlaian has been on three of LaFayette’s civil rights tours and finds it hard to imagine the racism and violence Civil Rights activists faced in the 1960s.
“When I was in Vietnam … even in the military we had racial disturbances,” he remembers. "Still, what happened in Mississippi and Alabama to the Freedom Riders and other civil rights protesters is shocking.”
As the air-conditioned charter bus rolls through Montgomery, riders learn that Rosa Parks didn’t refuse to give up her seat on a segregated city bus in 1955 because she was tired. That’s a myth that has developed over the years, LaFayette says. In reality, Parks was thinking of Emmett Till, the 14-year-old Chicago boy who was lynched in Money, Miss., earlier that year.
Much like the Nashville Student Movement, the boycott that followed in Montgomery hit business owners in their pocketbooks. It was a technique that would be used throughout the movement with great success, LaFayette says.
Bus riders learned that Nashville’s movement might not have happened the same way had the Rev. J.M. Lawson Jr. gone to Emory University instead of Vanderbilt. Lawson was recruited by Martin Luther King Jr. to put down roots in a southern town where he could mobilize others to learn and practice nonviolent resistance. Lawson ended up in Nashville because Emory’s theology school didn’t admit blacks at the time, LaFayette says.
While in Selma, LaFayette described an attempt on his own life. On the same day that NAACP leader Medgar Evers was gunned down in Jackson, Miss., two white men pretending to have car trouble outside his home lured LaFayette over to help. When LaFayette leaned into the car, he was struck in the head.
“He was supposed to knock me out the first go-round,” he remembers. “He jumped up in the air trying to hit me in the temple. I looked at him and he panicked. They were waiting for me. He drew his gun and pointed it at me. Then a fellow called Red came across the street with his shotgun and they left.”
LaFayette was later told by the FBI that the Klan had targeted for assassination because of his voting rights work in Selma.
One of the most chilling moments of LaFayette’s modern-day tour is a stop by Evers’ home in Jackson. Those gathered in the carport where Evers was gunned down by Byron De La Beckwith somberly observe the faint bloodstains that remain. The modest brick home with lime-green trim has been turned into a museum — a vivid reminder of the hatred and violence that permeated the Deep South.
“Since [Evers] was over the whole state, they were concerned about rural areas and the change he was influencing," LaFayette says, describing the NAACP’s traditional role of providing legal defense. “Medgar stepped over the bounds and his influence was vast. He was not a conformist.”
Jarol Sanchez knows quite a bit about bucking the status quo. The 42-year-old native of South America is on LaFayette’s bus tour with his wife and 6-year-old daughter. Sanchez was sentenced to 40 years in prison in Colombia for conspiracy and kidnapping. He served 11 years before being released for his work in convincing fellow inmates in the notorious Bellavista prison in Medellín to stop killing one another. Now Sanchez lives in Atlanta and works with LaFayette as a trainer in nonviolence.
“I’ve experienced violence,” he says. “We had different groups fighting over ideologies. Now they are fighting to take the country from drug dealers."
Each day in Bellavista, five to six prisoners were being killed. Sanchez became a voice for inmates, persuading them that too many people were dying inside the prison walls. Sanchez says they listened to him because he was one of a few in their number who hadn’t been convicted of murder. He taught himself about nonviolence by reading books while in prison.
“I took the decision as the leader that there would be no more [killing],” Sanchez says. For that reason, he explains, "the bus rides are very important to me. It is very important to ride so that people can know what happened in the history.”
For James Alexander, a 29-year-old teaching assistant at the Candler School of Theology in Atlanta, LaFayette’s bus tour offers a chance to knit the past with the present.
“There are so many strands of our history that are woven intricately in the fabric of our existence,” he says. “If those strings aren't maintained, the entire picture fades.”
The generation gap is so pronounced, Alexander worries, that there is a lack of communication between older and younger people.
“Forces need to be mobilized because there is so much division not only by race, but by socioeconomic status and religious affiliation," he explains. "At the end of the day we can't expect progress with just a handful of people moving up and everybody else left down to fend for themselves.”
That’s the exact message LaFayette is hoping will come from the bus tours, reunions and other activities honoring the Freedom Riders. In order to move forward, he believes, we must learn from the past.
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