Memoir offers new insight on 1960s civil rights struggle

Published Oct. 18, 2013

Tampa native Bernard LaFayette Jr.'s involvement with the civil rights movement began early. As a teen in Tampa, he was on the Youth Council of the NAACP. While he was in college at American Baptist Theological Seminary in Nashville, his roommate, John Lewis (now a U.S. representative from Atlanta) brought him to nonviolence workshops taught by the Rev. James Lawson, which galvanized LaFayette's dedication to the teachings of Mahatma Gandhi and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. That led him to participate in sit-ins in Nashville and become a Freedom Rider in 1961.

But the experience that changed both his life and the course of history was his leadership of the Alabama Voter Registration Campaign in Selma, Ala., from 1962 to 1965. LaFayette's new memoir, In Peace and Freedom: My Journey in Selma, offers an eye-opening look inside that pivotal era in American history.

LaFayette was active in the leadership of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee in 1962 when he requested a job no one else wanted: "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 the town was centrally located in Alabama, SNCC marked a bold black X across Selma on the wall map of the state."

But LaFayette, with the confidence of a 22-year-old, took on the directorship, setting out to enfranchise black voters in a county where only 156 of 15,000 blacks of voting age were registered. The book recounts his careful preparation for the task, including library hours studying Selma's history and even "a periodical of the White Citizen's Council, a white supremacy group. It was filled with helpful information in learning how this group thought."

But nothing could entirely prepare him for what he would encounter. Civil rights activists and black citizens seeking voting rights would be beaten, bombed and killed; on March 7, 1965, on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, 600 marchers would be attacked by police with tear gas and billy clubs. That event, known as Bloody Sunday, and the subsequent historic marches from Selma to Montgomery would lead directly to the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

LaFayette tells that story with authority and personal knowledge. Now the distinguished senior scholar in residence at the Candler School of Theology at Emory University in Atlanta and chairman of the national board of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, LaFayette has earned the right to look back on his part in history. But, as Lewis points out in his foreword to the book, voting rights are still under threat, and the fight is not yet done.