Revered for his work with voting rights and social justice, Rev. Bernard Lafayette, Jr. shared stories of the violence and social and political progress he experienced during the modern civil rights movement at an event on Tuesday.
The Robert W. Woodruff Library and the Manuscript, Archives and Rare Books Library (MARBL) sponsored the event, according to Ginger Smith, director of library external affairs.
In addition to being an accomplished civil rights activist, Lafayette is most famous for his work with voting rights for blacks in Selma, Ala.
He is also acclaimed for the work he did with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) and the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC), according to the moderator Holly Crenshaw, director of communications of Woodruff Library.
Approximately 40 staff, faculty and students listened from the audience as Crenshaw asked Lafayette about his experiences with the civil rights movement and the motivation behind his novel.
“Voting is important because that’s where the power really is,” Lafayette said about his work with voting rights and his experiences in Selma.
Lafayette said his interest in civil rights was sparked by the fact that white members of the community were too “mean” and the black folks were too “afraid.”
It was this issue that placed Lafayette on the academic path that led him to become a prominent leader in a number of social movements.
One of the struggles was finding a library that allowed black people to enter.
Lafayette also detailed his experiences as a part of the freedom riders, a group of civil rights activists known for challenging segregation by riding racially desegregated buses into town.
Lafayette also spoke about working with the “courageous eight” who signed a petition for desegregating schools in Selma.
Lafayette’s stories of his endeavors often included violence as he detailed how he and two others were the target of a murder plot.
One man, Medgar Evers, was successfully killed, and Lafayette was attacked and spent the night in the hospital, he said.
“It was a major loss,” Lafayette said. He added that Evers was passionate about making change alongside the people he was fighting for.
The violence in Lafayette’s accounts continued as he detailed the story of his arrest, though he said prison was the place he felt the freest.
“You experience the meaning of life when you’ve made the decision to give it up,” Lafayette said. “That’s when you become free, totally uninhibited.”
Lafayette was also closely involved with Martin Luther King, Jr. He told the audience how Mr. King offered him a job and told him to institutionalize and nationalize non-violence.
According to Lafayette, King was assassinated five hours later.
Following King’s advice, Lafayette has worked with countless cases to spread non-violent movements such as with the freedom fighters in Nigeria.
Lafayette pointed out an audience member who had worked with him on this project.
As Lafayette pointed out, not one of the freedom fighters they taught have gone back to violence.
College senior Robert Grabowitz is a previous student of Lafayette’s and attended the event. Grabowitz said he found Lafayette to be a very inspiring storyteller and teacher.
“I believe there is a deep wisdom in his words that is not always readily apparent,” Grabowitz said.
He added that he was disappointed at the lack of student presence and hoped that in the future, events such as these will be geared more toward undergraduates.
According to Smith, this event was the final program in a series related to the exhibition, “And the Struggle Continues: The Southern Christian Leadership Conference’s (SCLC) Fight for Social Change,” which has been in the Woodruff Library’s Schatten Gallery up until this week.
Smith added that SCLC records and materials will remain in MARBL and be available for student and faculty research.
“Personal narratives are a powerful way to transmit knowledge from one generation to the next,” Smith said, adding that she hopes students benefited from hearing a first-hand account of a direct participant in the civil rights movement.
According to Smith, events like this one are meant to increase student interest in library exhibitions and provide the library with a way to share its array of archives, manuscripts and rare books with the Emory University and the Atlanta community.
—By Naomi Maisel