MURFREESBORO — Soft-spoken but oozing a hardened resolve, civil rights legend Bernard Lafayette Jr. captivated his MTSU audience Thursday (Oct. 29) with memories of growing up in the throes of segregation yet fueled by a burning desire at a young age to fight for equality for all.
Lafayette gave the keynote address for MTSU’s 24th annual Social Science Symposium, a two-day event held at the James Union Building to allow undergraduate students to showcase their research. This year’s symposium carried the theme of “Voting Rights 1965-2015: Commemorating 50 Years,” a recognition of the anniversary of the Voting Rights Act while looking at challenges today. All events were free and open to the public.
With current youth-led movements such as Black Lives Matter harkening back to the activism of the 1960s and stirring controversy of their own today, perhaps it was fitting for an audience made up heavily of MTSU students to hear words of wisdom from a man who was arrested 30 times, kidnapped twice and was with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in Memphis on the morning of his assassination.
The 75-year-old Lafayette shared the story of the “life-changing moment” when he was 7 years old that planted the seeds for his activism. He was with his grandmother in Florida trying to catch a segregated streetcar one day. Though black riders paid the conductor at the front entrance of the car, they had to enter the rear door and sit in back. And it wasn’t unusual, he said, for black riders, as they made their way along side the car to enter in back, to be left standing in the street by a conductor who pulled away too soon.
To prevent this, the young Lafayette would usually run ahead of his grandmother to put his foot on the steps to the rear door to keep it from closing and allowing him and his grandmother to get on. But on this particular day, as they were running toward the rear, his grandmother fell in the street. He remembers reaching for her and the door as the streetcar pulled away.
“I was not able to do either successfully,” he said. “And I remember how I felt, that emotional memory will never go away. It felt like a sword had cut me in half. I was the victim in that sense.
“I said to myself, ‘When I get grown, I’m going to do something about this problem,’” he continued. “So my motivation for getting involved in the movement was not so much so that my grandchildren could have a better life. I wanted it immediately so that my grandmother would be able to have the opportunity to be treated as a human being after all the years she had lived.”
In the audience was dear friend and fellow civil rights soldier Ernest “Rip” Patton, both veterans of the Nashville lunch counter sit-in movement and Freedom Rides. Patton also shared his memories from the front lines during a voting-rights panel discussion held Wednesday in same room. Both men received nonviolent protest training from the Rev. James Lawson, a lion of the movement who visited MTSU last month with fellow activist the Rev. C.T. Vivian.
Lafayette spoke about the social symbolism behind the lunch counters during segregation, and how segregationists knew that if black and white people had the opportunity to frequently sit down to a meal together, everyone would soon enough find out that “different really doesn’t make a difference.”
Pat Embry, director of the John Seigenthaler Chair of Excellence in First Amendment Studies at MTSU, served as moderator for Lafayette’s appearance, and in introducing him to the audience read a quote from the late Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist David Halberstam, who covered the civil rights movement in Nashville for The Tennessean.
“(Halberstam) said, ‘Of all the people in the civil rights movement, Bernard Lafayette was the easiest one to underestimate. He’s a very quiet American hero,’” Embry said.
Only in his early 20s at the time, Lafayette co-founded the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and was a key organizer of the Selma voting rights campaign and the “Bloody Sunday” march depicted in the movie “Selma,” which was shown Wednesday as a part of the symposium.
“There comes a time when you have to take a stand and be recognized as a human being,” Lafayette said.
While cautioning those with activist ambitions to remember that you can’t accomplish all of your goals all at once, he also reminded the audience that there are still segregationist laws on the books in the state of Tennessee that have not repealed.
Since 2006, Lafayette has served as Distinguished Senior Scholar in Residence at the Candler School of Theology at Emory University in Atlanta. He is chairman of the board of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, founded by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
The MTSU Social Science Symposium has been held every year since 1991 as a way to provide MTSU students a forum for presenting their research. The symposium was funded and sponsored by the College of Liberal Arts, Department of Sociology and Anthropology, Department of History, Department of Political Science, Distinguished Lecture Series, Seigenthaler Chair of Excellence in First Amendment Studies, Middle Tennessee Anthropology Society and the Sociology Club.