By Melissa Moskowitz
Civil rights activist, professor and minister Dr. Bernard Lafayette Jr. spoke at the Nott Memorial Monday at 6 p.m. to discuss his experiences in the Civil Rights movement as a Freedom Rider, Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) organizer and participant in the early lunch counter protests. Throughout his career as an academic and activist, Lafayette has been a lifelong devotee to the practices of nonviolence, researching nonviolent resistance and developing programs as an activist to teach nonviolence to a litany of different audiences including police officers and gang members. Lafayette centered his discussion around ideas of community, ethnicity and non-violence.
The Office of Campus Diversity brought Lafayette to campus, after having received special instruction by President Stephen Ainlay. Ainlay had initially met with Lafayette over winter break along with the students participating in the Civil Rights mini-term.
Interpreting Martin Luther King’s ideology on community, Lafayette discussed the ways that the beloved community extended past the concepts of desegregation and integration and the need to incorporate understanding. The Freedom Riders, Lafayette said, had an understanding that “we must go” and that collective understanding was integral to the formation of community.
Lafayette also discussed the importance on nonviolence as a response to oppression. Drawing from his experience, Lafayette described the various nonviolent protest and opposition tactics used during the movement, which included singing and marching to jails and asking to be arrested. Lafayette had personally been in jail 27 times for various non-violent protests.
In other parts of the speech, Lafayette radically challenged the conventional understanding of race and segregation. Claiming segregation is not about maintaining total ethnic separation, but rather “defining who would get what and who got less.” Offering the example of black maids who took care of white children to enforce the point that in many ways the different ethnicities were deeply entrenched in others’ lives. At the root of this “nomenclature about how you identify and separate people,” Lafayette remarked, is “economics.”
Lafayette delivered his speech conversationally breaking for moments to recount past experiences, stories, jokes, and at several points to sing. His passionate, enthusiastic and heartfelt delivery coalesced in a way that married academics with a deeply personal story.