Remembering a local legend: words from a Tampa-raised Freedom Rider

LaFayette was arrested in 1961 for participating in the Freedom Rides. Photo courtesy of Haley Jordan/Connect.

As we acknowledge Martin Luther King Jr. Day, we are reminded that a leader in the Civil Rights Movement had his start right here in Tampa.

Bernard LaFayette is recognized for his work in the desegregation of many cities including Nashville and Selma, as well as the organization and execution of many lunch counter sit-ins. He is one of the 436 Freedom Riders, the group of African Americans who rode buses into the segregated South in the early 1960s. He worked alongside Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and grew up in the heart of the Tampa Bay Area, Ybor City.

Last February, LaFayette made his way back home, specifically to the University of South Florida St. Petersburg (USFSP) to share his experiences with the student body.

“Can you remember the first time you were called or heard the word ‘nigger?’” Rev. J.C. Pritchett II asked LaFayette. Pritchett is a pastor of Faith Church in St. Petersburg and led the Q&A portion of the evening at USFSP last February.

“Yes, it burns deeply into my memory,” LaFayette told the audience. It was also the first time his grandmother pretended to beat him. She was trying to usher away the white men who had named him such and chased him home. LaFayette, a child in Ybor City, had accidentally kicked a tin can at one of them.

“I didn’t know I could kick it that far,” he said. “It came right down on his head.”

An ordained minister, LaFayette is a battle-scarred civil rights activist and an authority on nonviolent social change. He co-founded the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and organized the Alabama Voter Registration Project. He served as program director of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), and national coordinator of the Poor People’s Campaign.

LaFayette talked briefly of childhood memories: his first impromptu sit in as a seven-year-old selling coffee, his early role as a Freedom Rider, and pieces of information he announced as “what’s not in the books.”

“April fourth, 1968,” LaFayette grew somber as his speech slowed. “Martin Luther King and I were together at the Lorraine Hotel, I was in his room.”

He said Dr. King was scheduled for a press conference in Washington, D.C. to announce the opening of the headquarters of the Poor People’s Campaign and was working on a press release.

“Martin Luther King, he finished the press statement, and he said ‘now Bernard, the next movement we are going to have is to internationalize and institutionalize nonviolence.’” Dr. King told LaFayette to go to Washington ahead of time. He told LaFayette “I’ll be along later.”

LaFayette flew to Washington where no one awaited him at the airport. He contacted the office of the Poor People’s Campaign to ask about the man who was supposed to pick him up.

“I called the office and they said ‘there’s a riot’ outside. I said ‘a riot?’ they said ‘Martin Luther King’s just been shot.’” LaFayette then used an airport phone to call The Associated Press and United Press International.

“I had one phone in one ear and one in the other,” LaFayette said. “I was waiting to hear the direct news from Memphis. I told them who I was, and they started reading the ticker tape… I never heard Martin Luther King had died, on the telephone. The UPI reporter, a white man, broke down in tears. That’s how I knew that Martin Luther King had died.”

LaFayette told the story with no introduction and gave no closing statement other than that those in Washington took no leave of their self-prescribed duties, and continued Dr. King’s work even in the days following his assassination.
LaFayette went on to say that although Dr. King is gone, his message is not forgotten.

“The thing that made us strong was our ability to resist,” LaFayette said on the march from Selma, Alabama to the state capital of Montgomery on March 7, 1965.

Lafayette continues to teach workshops on nonviolence to police academies, protest groups, and young adults around the world.

“Any situation you’re in,” LaFayette said, “You have the power, and the power is this. Only light can put out darkness. Darkness can’t put out light. Darkness can’t put out darkness. And we have the power to do that.”


Information for this article gathered from https://snccdigital.org/people/bernard-lafayette/

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