Just in time for Martin Luther King’s eighty-third birthday, author Dr. Raymond Arsenault and Civil Rights Movement hero Dr. Bernard LaFayette, Jr. will present “Freedom Riders: 1961 and the Struggle for Racial Justice” at 6:30 p.m. on Thursday, January 12 at the Freefall Theatre, 6099 Central Avenue, St. Petersburg, The Gulf Coast Community Choir of Sarasota will present Movement songs.
Fifty years ago, the Supreme Court had already banned segregation on interstate transportation. Yet many Southern states clung to outdated Jim Crow laws. To force the executive branch to enforce the judicial branch‘s ruling, the Freedom Riders, an integrated group, traveled throughout the South. All were imprisoned under unconstitutional Jim Crow laws.
Arsenault, professor of history at the University of South Florida, wrote The Freedom Riders 1961 and the Struggle for Racial Justice which is now a PBS documentary and a feature film. Arsenault appeared on Oprah to discuss his book.
Currently a Senior Distinguished Scholar-in-Residence at the Candler School of Theology at Emory University in Atlanta, Dr. LaFayette is also chairman of the board of the SCLC, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.
Dr. LaFayette was born in the Ybor City section of Tampa to a family that valued education. He remembers the two Americas of segregation, including the humiliating experience of riding the street car. Blacks paid at one door and entered at another, allowing street car drivers to take off, stiffing their riders.
“What could we do?” Dr. LaFayette said. Once, while attempting to ride with his grandmother, Rozelia, she tripped. The driver left them in the dust. They had already paid. At the tender age of seven, LaFayette vowed to grow up and make America one.
LaFayette respected his parents and grandmother. An organizer, his grandmother helped found New Hope Baptist Church, which grew from 35 in his grandmother’s living room to a congregation of over 1,000.
With four sisters, Dr. LaFayette was the family overachiever. He joined the NAACP, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, at age twelve.
Dr. LaFayette edited his high school newspaper at Middleton Senior High School in Tampa.
After it won first place in a state competition, Florida Agriculture & Mechanical then offered him a four-year scholarship. Dr. LaFayette turned it down to attend Nashville’s American Baptist Theological Seminary since he felt called to the ministry.
He arrived at a fortuitous time. The professors were involved, performing dual duty as pastors, activists, and leaders. “They were wonderful mentors,” Dr. LaFayette remembered.
A favorite was Rev. James Lawson, who taught weekly workshops on nonviolence. The seminarians studied the Bible and Christianity on weekdays and Gandhi, nonviolence, and the truth force on weekends. Lawson taught that Christianity and other religions were harmonious.
Dr. LaFayette could easily forgive his enemies. Loving them provided a challenge,, and he loved challenges. Dr. LaFayette admitted, “I got interested.” He resolved to love those who were not loving and to end segregation quickly as possible. “I wanted my parents and grandparents to experience being treated with dignity and respect.”
With fellow students Diane Nash, James Bevel, and John Lewis, Dr. LaFayette helped found the respected NSM, the Nashville Student Movement.
While traveling home from seminary for Christmas break 1959, Dr. LaFayette committed his first unplanned act of civil disobedience. He was riding with fellow seminarian John Lewis, now a longtime Georgia Congressman.
The two young men chose seats at the front of the bus. They refused to move at the driver‘s request. The bus driver left, probably to call the police. When he returned without them, the seminarians were hopeful.
To punish them, the bus driver rammed his seat back. Dr. LaFayette’s suitcase protected his legs. Otherwise, the driver’s seat handware would have punctured them.
Although the young men were prepared to be arrested, they were also cautious. Rural law enforcement in the Deep South was unpredictable. When Lewis got off in Troy, Dr. LaFayette wasn’t sure they would see each other again. However, they both arrived home safely.
Two months later, Dr. LaFayette was first arrested and jailed during Nashville sit-ins. That summer he was jailed after a Miami sit-in.
When CORE decided to sponsor the Freedom Rides in 1961, Lewis and Dr. LaFayette, now experienced protesters, were eager to participate. CORE required parental permission slips. Lewis, 21, didn’t need one. Dr. LaFayette’s parents refused to give their permission, saying it would be signing his death warrant.
Lewis went along without him. In Birmingham, the Freedom Riders were attacked by a mob. Later, in Anniston, a mob of Klansmen tried to burn the Freedom Riders alive in the bus.
CORE halted the Freedom Rides. The idealistic Nashville students decided the rides must continue. They took charge, requiring no parental permission slips. Dr. LaFayette was in. They missed their final exams to make history.
Several groups left Nashville, eventually meeting up at the Birmingham bus station. They spent the night integrating white sections. The Ku Klux Klan harassed them wearing their white hooded robes with the cross in red and black Nazi Party colors.
The Klansmen threw water on the students and stomped on their toes. The students, trained in nonviolence, did not react.
The International Press, particularly in Soviet Block countries, was splashing the headlines of the White on Black Persecution across their front pages. It was a national embarrassment. To avoid further publicity and violence, Attorney General Robert Kennedy secured a bus to take the Riders directly to New Orleans.
A direct route would defeat the purpose of breaking the Jim Crow laws. The Riders instead bought tickets to Montgomery. The Alabama state police escorted the bus. At the Montgomery city limits, the state troopers evaporated.
The bus arrived at the bus terminal with no protection. The mob first attacked the media. The female students refused to get into taxis. The mob battered the students. Lewis received stitches, Dr. LaFayette suffered three cracked ribs, and friends were beaten and hospitalized.
At this point, the Riders debated halting the Rides. Then, to their surprise, their mentors and professors, including Rev. James Lawson, showed up to join them. This validated and empowered them.
They boarded buses for Mississippi, then and now a state dreaded by blacks. It has a miserable record of civil rights violations.
Hoping to escape negative publicity, Gov. Ross Barnett advised Mississippians to stay away from the Northern agitators. He would take care of the rabble-rousers. He did. Riders got off the bus, walked into the waiting area, and were arrested.
First, Barnett filled local and county jails. Then as the summer influx of Freedom Riders continued to inundate Mississippi, the governor transferred them all to Parchment Penitentiary, notorious for its brutal treatment of inmates. Dr. LaFayette celebrated his twenty-first birthday there.
The Riders transformed the jail into a university, scheduling classes and worship all day long. They made friends with their jailers. “We were busy. We had homework,” Dr. LaFayette said. When Dr. LaFayette posted bail and appealed, he stayed in Mississippi to recruit Mississippians.
In his efforts to end segregation, Dr. LaFayette was beaten and arrested twenty-seven times. Friends were beaten, maimed, and killed. “I’m glad to still be here,” he said.
Back in Tampa, his parents couldn‘t count on Dr. LaFayette to carry on the family name. They conceived another child. Dr. LaFayette has a brother who is twenty years younger.
At his mother‘s insistence, Dr. LaFayette earned a doctorate from Harvard University. He is now an expert in nonviolence leadership training and a major contributor to peace education. He trains the trainers to produce more James Lawsons. It was the last request of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
“Nonviolence has directed my life for the last forty years,” Dr. LaFayette said.
In his seventies, this activist has not slowed. Dr. LaFayette still thinks he can change the world, and he‘s working to do so.
“Freedom Riders: 1961 and the Struggle for Racial Justice” is sponsored by the Florida Holocaust Museum. Admission is $9. Florida Holocaust Museum members may attend for free.
— Wendy Risk, SaintPetersBlog correspondent.