ST. PETERSBURG – The Florida Holocaust Museum presented an afternoon with one of the Civil Rights Movement’s giants, Bernard LaFayette. As University of South Florida Professor Ray Arsenault interviewed LaFayette, the standing room only crowd marveled at his life and career as a freedom fighter.
Growing up in Ybor City
Growing up in 1940s Ybor City was a multicultural experience. LaFayette grew up around Italians, West Indians, Native Americans, Jews, and of course, Cubans. Ybor City was very different from the rest of Tampa and very different from most places in the South.
As a small child he lived next to two cigar companies, and joked that he started smoking them at age five. By seven years old he would take orders for coffee on Eighth Avenue, buy the coffee at a restaurant and deliver it to the merchants who couldn’t leave their posts.
“That was my business,” said LaFayette. “It was high price. Ten cents for the coffee and 10 cents for the delivery; I always had a pocket full of money.”
He remembers his first experience at integrating a lunch counters was in 1947 when he slowly sat on a stool while waiting for his coffee order.
“It was probably the first time that at a black person sat on a stool in Ybor City,” he said.
One experience that set the course for LaFayette’s life was at age seven when he watched his grandmother fall while trying not to be left by a streetcar.
In those days black people had to get on the bus in the front, pay their fare, leave the front of the bus and walk around to the door in the back. Many times the bus or streetcar driver would pull off before the person could get on the back of the bus.
“That was the most segregated experience I had. I remember saying to myself at age seven…‘When I get grown, I’m going to do something about that problem,’” said LaFayette.
When he got a little older, he got a job mopping the floor at Blue Ribbon Grocery Store, which was owned by a Jewish Family. They moved him up to bagging groceries and then a cashier. He was the youngest and only black cashier in Ybor City. They then made him the manager of the produce counter.
“Can you imagine that? I was no more than about 13 years old,” he said as he bragged about selling out every Saturday. “All I couldn’t sell, I would give away. They didn’t know.”
He kept getting moved around in the store. He became a butcher at 14 years old.
“I know how to keep Kosher, and I also know how to make sausage. That’s why I don’t eat them,” he said laughing.
They taught him how to drive and make deliveries; he became the youngest black person in Ybor City to have a driver’s license. He later realized he was being trained for every position in case of emergency.
His experience working for the Jewish family gave him hope for change.
At Milton High School, he became the editor of the newspaper. As editor, his newspaper won first place in the state among black schools and won him a four year scholarship to Florida A&M. He wasn’t too enthused about going into journalism because his grandmother told him when he was a little boy that she saw a mark on his forehead, which was a sign that he would be called to preach.
“I use to stand in the mirror looking for this mark. The only mark I saw was from the chicken pox,” he said to a room full of laughter.
By the time his grandmother urged him to go, he had missed the registration deadline. In fact, American Baptist Theological Seminary, now American Baptist College, in Tennessee was the only place that had not closed registration.
He ran as fast as he could to college and arrived two weeks early. Luckily, the people from his church sent him off with a suitcase full of can goods so he was able to eat.
American Baptist proved to be the beginning of his training as a civil rights activist.
There he met some of the movement’s greatest minds: John Lewis, James Bevel, C.T. Vivian, Diane Nash and Marion Barry. There they went to workshops conducted by activist and Professor James Lawson.
These workshops were focused specifically on nonviolent sit ins. LaFayette admitted that the only reason he went to the first workshop was to shut now Senator John Lewis’ mouth.
“I went there and I got snapped up. They were talking about love and non-violence and changing people and equality and desegregation,” he said.
He became the coordinator for the first sit in in Nashville, and lost his job the first day. He was supposed to go from store to store to report back if people were getting arrested. He ended up getting arrested himself. That was his first arrest of 30.
Nash, Bevel, Lewis and LaFayette, all members of the Nashville Student Movement, completed desegregating lunch counters in Nashville, Tenn., before the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) was formed, which he assisted in in 1960.
“There was no coincidence that a lot of the leadership came out of Nashville,” said LaFayette.
After desegregating the lunch counters, they did the same for five movie theaters in Nashville, T.N., after 11 nights of demonstrations. In fact, they boycotted all of the downtown area. Nashville had the only desegregated bus station in the South.
“You put the pressure on by withdrawing your support,” he said explaining that you are a culprit if you support an unjust system. “The Montgomery Bus Boycott, the problem was not segregated busses in terms of black folks having to go to the back, it was the black folks who paid their fare and then went on to the back,” he said explaining that no system can operate efficiently unless they have all parties involved.
LaFayette said the first thing you must look at is your contribution to a system that is unjust. “You have to educate the people so they can be conscious of how they participate in supporting the system,” he said. “To be silent and do nothing is to cooperate.”
At age 20 he became one of the 436 Freedom Riders. Like many of the riders he ended up in Parchman Prison in Mississippi where he spent part of the summer in 1961. The white authorities thought that putting these college students into prison would break the back of the movement.
They were wrong. Arsenault said the prison became a “university” of non-violence. “The longer they were there, the more they felt like real freedom fighters. They learned from each other,” said Arsenault whose acclaimed book “Freedom Riders: 1961 and the Struggle for Racial Justice” is recognized as the definitive work on the Freedom Rider Movement.
“We wanted to warn the jailers and their staff to get ready because there were other Freedom Riders coming,” said LaFayette. “We kept looking out of the window waiting for them to come and we made up the song: ‘Busses are a coming.’”
That act of defiance antagonized the jailers, but that didn’t stop them. They made up more verses to the song, which prompted the jailers to take their mattress and even their toothbrushes. They learned how to sing without opening their mouths after the toothbrushes were taken away.
Many of you have seen the movie “Selma,” but Hollywood took some tremendous liberties in making Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. the center and emphasizing the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.
Two years prior to the time frame in the movie, SNCC, under LaFayette, had a voting rights project there. So the film compressed time and combined the events.
LaFayette was the organizer of the Selma movement for the first two years. None of what happened in the film would have been possible without him risking his life, and yet, he is not in the credits.
LaFayette informed that the batons the police beat the crowds with in Selma were made by the Selma Table Company. They were table legs, some even engraved with the policemen’s names.
“Those who believe they couldn’t swing hard enough would put lead pipes in the middle of the table leg,” recounted LaFayette.
LaFayette is a Distinguished Scholar-in-Residence at the Candler School of Theology at Emory University in Atlanta, and is now heading up their institute on nonviolence. He is considered the premier trainer of nonviolence in the world.
The day before Dr. King was killed, LaFayette promised him he would do everything he could to internationalize the nonviolent movement. He has kept his promise in an extraordinary way.
To learn more about Bernard LaFayette, you can pick up his book entitled “In Peace and Freedom: My Journey in Selma.”