Keeper of the Dream: Civil rights pioneer Dr. Bernard LaFayette remembers Dr. Martin Luther King

Editor’s note: Dr. Bernard LaFayette Jr., a member of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s inner circle, helps lead Project Pilgrimage, a Seattle-based nonprofit that builds interracial and intergenerational community through civic programs, including a civil rights pilgrimage to the historic sites in the South. Through a pilot program, Starbucks partners participate in the pilgrimages several times a year. On the cusp of Martin Luther King Jr. Day, Lisa Smith, who oversees the pilot program as global responsibility manager at Starbucks, and Starbucks Newsroom writer Linda Dahlstrom asked him to recount his experiences and share his memories of his mentor and friend.

By Linda Dahlstrom and Lisa Smith / Starbucks Newsroom

As a child, he was afraid of the ghosts he was sure lurked under his bed. Each night, he would tuck the covers over his head and wait in fear until he fell asleep.

And then one day, the boy who would grow up to become civil rights pioneer Dr. Bernard LaFayette Jr. decided to vanquish his fear by walking straight into what frightened him most. He went to the scariest place he could imagine – a cemetery at night. The first night, a cat jumped out of tree, scaring him into racing back home. But he went back, over and over until, finally, he’d proven to himself there was nothing to be afraid of.

“I decided I’d fight fear,” he explained. Every time he was afraid of something from then on, he chose to directly face it until its power was gone. “I started erasing them, one after another. That’s how I fought fear.”

It was what he did as one of the original Freedom Riders, challenging segregated seating on buses in the South in 1961. It was what he did the next year when he became director of voter registration in Selma, Ala., and endured threats on his life for his attempts to help black people register. It was what he did as he marched with his friend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and how he carried on after King was killed. It was what he did the night of June 12, 1963, when coordinated assassinations by the Ku Klux Klan were planned for civil rights leaders Medgar Evers in Mississippi, Rev. Benjamin Elton Cox in Louisiana and LaFayette himself in Alabama.

Cox was out of town that night, so escaped. Evers, age 37, was murdered in his driveway. LaFayette was brutally attacked and pistol whipped by a white man in Selma, each time getting up to face his attacker and look him in the eye. When LaFayette’s neighbor emerged carrying a rifle and lined up to shoot the attacker, LaFayette, a staunch believer in the philosophy of nonviolence, stepped in the line of sight, protecting the attacker, who fled.

Early on, LaFayette said, he’d decided that he was willing to die for the civil rights cause. “Death is part of the life experience. I wanted my life to be worthwhile and have some value to others,” he said. “I wanted my life not to be in vain but (to make a difference) for not just my contemporaries but those who’d come after.”

Now 77, LaFayette has lived long enough to earn gray hair, see his children grow up and have children of their own, something many of his peers in the civil rights movement did not. He has lived to become one of the keepers of the stories of the civil rights movement – of how things were and what he hopes they will become. He has lived to be a keeper of The Dream.

Birth of an icon

If the streetcar hadn’t pulled away, everything might have been different. LaFayette was 7 and he and his grandmother were trying to catch a streetcar. In those days in the segregated South, black passengers were expected to deposit their fare at the front of the streetcar, then get off and walk to the back where they could board. But some drivers would take off before the black passengers had time to get back on, stealing their fare.

On this particular day, LaFayette’s grandmother fell just before reaching the back door. “I tried to pull her up and I couldn’t move her,” he said. “I was reaching for the door and reaching for her with my other hand and I felt so helpless, like a sword would cut me right in half.”

In that instant, his destiny was born. “I remember saying that when I get grown I’m going to do something about this problem,” he said recently by phone from his home in Tuskegee, Ala. “I wanted to get grown really fast so I could help change these conditions.”

As a teen, he joined the youth council of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). Later, as a student at the American Baptist Theological Seminary in Nashville, his roommate John Lewis (now a 31-year U.S. Representative) invited him to attend nonviolence workshops. Through that, he saw the path to change.

“The idea of civil disobedience intrigued me as I came to understand that it was more important to obey a moral law than an unjust civil law,” he wrote in his book, “In Peace and Freedom: My Journey in Selma.”

At age 22, he volunteered to become the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee’s director of voter registration in Selma. When the SNCC leadership told him it was too dangerous, he said, “I’ll take the position, sight unseen.” Fifteen minutes after he arrived in town, a police car was following him, he remembered.

He registered black voters against obstacles and threats to his life, including the attack that nearly killed him. In 1965, he marched with King, whom he’d met years earlier, from Selma to Montgomery, crossing the Edmund Pettus Bridge.

Going to the mountaintop

On the night of April 3, 1968, LaFayette was with King in Memphis to support black sanitation workers who were striking for safer work conditions and better pay. A few years earlier, King had appointed LaFayette to be national field operations director for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and the two men often traveled together. In a room at the Lorraine Motel, the two men worked on a press statement about the upcoming Poor People’s Campaign that LaFayette would deliver in Washington, D.C., the next day while King remained in Memphis.

King was exhausted and already in his pajamas and in bed when the phone rang, LaFayette remembered recently. His friend, Ralph Abernathy, was at a meeting at Mason Temple. King had earlier decided not to go so he could rest, but Abernathy said the crowd there was so disappointed he hoped he’d change his mind.

“He (King) said ‘Are you telling me I need to get out of the bed, get dressed and come?’,” LaFayette recalled. “But (Abernathy) said ‘This is your crowd.’ So, he got up and told me to continue working on the statement while he went. That was when he made the ‘Mountaintop’ speech.”

Without notes, King delivered the last speech of his life, including the famous lines, “Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I'm not concerned about that now. I just want to do God's will. And He's allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I've looked over. And I've seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land!”

When King returned the motel, he was so electrified that he couldn’t focus on the press release, LaFayette said. Instead, the men finished it the next morning, on what would be the last day of King’s life. Before LaFayette left for the airport, LaFayette said King told him, “The next movement we are going to have is to internationalize and institutionalize nonviolence.”

By the time LaFayette’s plane landed in Washington D.C., his mentor and friend had been shot. He learned King had died while on the phone with a reporter who broke down in tears as he was reading the ticker tape with the news.

“I still have that Lorraine Motel room key,” LaFayette said quietly.

Moving toward wholeness

After King died, LaFayette strove to fulfill the mission of King’s last words, traveling around the world, helping work toward reconciliation. Despite the rise in violence, hatred and empowerment of white supremacists in the last year, LaFayette said he’s not discouraged. “When we talk about the history of the civil rights movement, it’s more of a loop de loop rather than a straight path,” he said.

These days, he’s focused on the younger generations and counting on them to make a difference, the way he and his peers did.

After all, he knows, it is those with long years ahead of them, who will continue the work he and his fellow civil rights pioneers began.

Sometimes he remembers his fallen friends such as King, those who stood tall even as they faced baseball bats, police clubs, water hoses and guns. These days, what looms far larger than their deaths are their lives.

In remembering King, on the eve of what would have been his 89th birthday, LaFayette recalls the way King loved to play pool, how he’d put extra change in his pockets so he could give it away if someone who needed it asked him for money, and the way he really saw people. “He was a great speaker – but he was an even better listener,” he recalled. “He listened to gang members, people who were unemployed and out on the streets. Caring has a lot to do with being open to other folks and their suffering.”

Nearly 50 years after King’s assassination, LaFayette believes more than ever in King’s dream. He’s stood up to the face of hate and countered it with love, has seen history made and he knows more change will come.

“It’s like (King) said in his last speech. I may not get there, but we as a people are going to get there,” he said. “We have to move toward wholeness, not separation."

Historic photos are courtesy of the personal collection of Dr. Bernard LaFayette. Recent images are courtesy of Jane Osgerby.

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