Bernard LaFayette Jr. And Kathryn Lee Johnson. In Peace and Freedom: My Journey in Selma. Kentucky. University Press of Kenticky. 2013. pp. 195. Price $ 35/-.
By Dr. AJ Sebastian sdb, Former Professor & Head, Dept. of English, Nagaland University, Kohima Campus,Kohima 797001, Nagaland. Mob: 9436011884, ID: firstname.lastname@example.org
In Peace and Freedom: My Journey in Selma presents the ‘weltanschauung’ of Bernard LaFayette Jr. who was deeply involved in Civil Rights for over the past fifty years. A co-founder of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and an associate of Martin Luther King Jr. in the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), he became the Director of Alabama Voter registration Campaign in Selma. In this memoir, written with Kathryn Lee Johnson, he recounts his life in Selma. Braving challenges and opposition, he was one of the primary organizers of the 1965 Selma Voting Rights Movement and the Selma to Montgomery March. Lafayette recollects his personal journey of hope despite all violence and racism he encountered. The book chronicles his encounter with the black community and the white authorities. His firm conviction led him to face all opposition to move on, shedding all fear and trepidation to do what was right according to his conscience. His faith coupled with the support of fellow activists, helped in his endeavour being reinforced by Mahatma Gandhi’s philosophy of nonviolence and civil disobedience.
In his foreword to the book by the Congressman John Robert Lewis refers to the marches and protests in Selma which “…disturbed an unjust peace and paved the way for justice” (LaFayette & Kathryn 2013:x).
In the preface LaFayette sums up how he got involved in the Civil Rights Movement from an early age with the intention of working toward nonviolence and peace in his mission following the footsteps of Mahatma Gandhi. He took up Rev. Lawson’s methods of role play and social drama. He also made a study of how people’s emotions affect their behaviour and came to the following conclusion. “…If we find the strength to discipline our emotions, this can serve as a catalyst for guiding our own behaviour in a positive direction” (Ibidem xii). He also took up the personal challenge of loving one’s enemies and doing good to those who hate as per the Gospel call. He writes: “The practice of learning to love people who had literally put their foot in my face was a challenge. I could take the blows physically without retaliating” (Ibidem).
In the Prologue entitled The Road into Selma, Fall 1962 is a recollection of Lafayette’s first shocking experience of segregation while travelling to selma and witnessing a road mishap where the injured white truck driver was attended to by medics who completely ignored a wounded black man. “It was clear to me before I had even crossed into the city limits that blacks in Selma felt totally powerless in situations with white people. There was so much fear that they became immobilized….this incident was indicative of the deep-seated racial conflict that was present in this small Alabama town” (Ibidem 2).
The book has been divided into seven chapters followed by an Epilogue and useful Appendixes. The photo feature in the middle of the book gives a touch of realism and ‘historical presence’ to the readers.
Chapter 1: Preparing for Selma begins with a powerful quote from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. “Peace is not merely a distant goal that we seek, but a means by which we arrive at the goal” summing up the thrust in the book. Every subsequent chapter has an adage from great men in history. The author points out his predicament as he set out to go to Selma.
He begins acknowledging President John F. Kennedy administration’s influence in funding the voting project called “deliverables” which the President declared in his inaugural address: “We observe today not a victory of party but a celebration of freedom – symbolizing an end as well as a beginning – signifying renewal as well as change” (Ibidem 3). It was a clarion call inspiring and motivating the new generation of blacks to press for change. LaFayette took up the challenge to serve the country through nonviolence and in a positive way. He took up the task of setting up voter registration office at Selma, becoming the director of the Alabama Voter Registration Campaign. At Selma he found the four elements Dr. King spoke of leading to the success of the movement: 1) it must have a distinct beginning and end; 2) it should focus on a local problem that could gain national attention about a more global issue; 3) activists must be trained in nonviolent strategies; and 4) attitudes of the local community must be transformed (ibidem 6). To his utter surprise LaFayette found hardly any blacks were registered in Selma as fear loomed large in the black community to come forward to assert their rights. The Freedom Rides held in 1960s at various places brought much national attention to the oppression of the blacks in the South. He was also inspired by Miss Baker, Connie Curry, Rev. John Conley, Dr. Rufus Lewis and others. He took seriously the advice of Dr. Lewis to visit people by night to avoid drawing attention as an outsider. Following Gandhi’s and Dr. King’s footsteps, in his Voter Registration Campaign, LaFayette went on to implement nonviolent direct action to make maximum blacks to exercise their civil rights.
Chapter 2: Shackles of Fear, Handcuffs of Hopelessness recounts how the author began his journey to Selma to begin his project in January 1963, being followed by a police car. Fear loomed large in his mind that the Freedom Rides would land him in jail. To dispel his fears he tried to talk with several older people. His wife Colia accompanied him to Selma. They lived with Mrs. Amelia Boynton, a leader in the black community who had invited SNCC to Selma. He reported to the notorious sheriff Jim Clark, known for his segregationist and antagonist attitude towards the blacks. To get the project get accomplished, Lafayette planned to reach out to various organizations and community leaders, instilling hope in them and to be part of his dream plan. Without challenging the prevalent undemocratic system, he tried to garner support for the movement. There were a few blacks who were convinced of their self worth, came together to reinforce their determination to register in the voter’s list. Those who inspired and encouraged him include Mrs. Amelia Boynton, Mrs. Margaret Moore, Rev. Lawson, Jim Bevel, Diane Nash and others.
Selma youth were inspired by the Birmingham youth whom Lafayette had trained. They came to Selma as volunteers. They shared their personal experiences of demonstrations, arrests, beatings and jail to inspire the young men of Selma who used to gather for workshops at St. Elizabeth’s Mission Catholic Church, led by Fr. Maurice Ouellet. These sessions focused on restraining oneself as well as to transform natural fears and anger into positive responses. They wrote and sang their protest songs, inspiring the entire black community:
Freedom is comin’ and it won’t be long
Freedom is comin’ and we’re marching on
And if you want to be free, come and go with me …. (Ibidem 43).
These songs became source of healing process than mere protests for the community.
Chapter 3: Preparing to Register to Vote begins with an account of the Dallas County Courthouse open only two days a month, restricting opportunities for registration. The registration application was a tedious literacy test to disqualify the blacks. Lafayette’s strategy was to get as many people as possible to go to the courthouse and attempt to register in order to expose discrimination suffered by the blacks. They began to train people to fill the forms and motivate them. Music became a binding force creating a sense of togetherness with songs like “We Shall Overcome.”The first mass meeting was to be held at the Tabernacle Baptist Church of Rev. Lewis Lloyd Anderson. People were scared to come for the meeting as it was for voter registration. About 350 people turned up which was addressed by James Forman. Sheriff Clark had taken photographs of those involved in the organization of the meeting, consequently, a week later they arrested Lafayette over vagrancy. The U.S. Department of Justice was decided to take action on him as he was helping people register to vote. But, Civil Rights Attorneys J.L. Chestnut and Solomon Seay came to his defence.
Since he foresaw harassment from the Sheriff and the whites, LaFayette formulated a “deliberate leadership role reversal” strategy by organizing them against him as their leader. This resulted in strengthening the group by getting the local conservative ministers to exert their own leadership. Mr. Moss, a liaison in the Catholic Church, met with the group of black pastors, telling them that they should be leaders in the movement than Rev. LaFayette, an outsider. Week after week they met for their secret meetings as more and more moderate ministers were added to the number. Mr. Moss encouraged them to take up the issue of voter registration. During one of such meetings LaFayette called up on phone and told the pastor who attended the call: “This is Rev. LaFayette, I want to know if we can have a mass meeting next Thursday at your church.” He hesitated and then said, “Yes, you can have a mass meeting then at my church.” I thanked him for stepping up and showing bold leadership and courage. He said, “Hold on a minute.” I heard a muffled voice in the background, and after a while he came back on the receiver and said, “The following week you can have it at Rev. ……..’s church.” (Ibidem 62). With that one phone call LaFayette was able to schedule mass meetings in various churches. Several churches overflowed with mass meetings where various people addressed the gathering such as Mrs. Reeves and Rev. James Bevel. LaFayette always insisted on keeping the movement nonviolent and never to tarnish by hitting back at the oppressors. Every meeting ended peacefully, despite the Sheriff Clark’s wicked tactics.
Chapter 3: Central Alabama Heats up records various incidents that instilled fear into the hearts of the blacks demonstrating for their rights. The cruelty of Sheriff Clark had led to the resignation of several of his deputies. There were assassination attempts on leaders – LaFayette, Benjamion Elton Cox and Medgar Evers in three different states on 12 June 1963. The attempts were aimed at killing individuals than mass killings, so as to warn leaders to keep off from the movement. This couldn’t suppress their commitment to the civil rights cause. Medgar was constantly threatened and finally shot dead.
Lafayette recalls how he was attacked brutally on 12 June 1963 while returning home after mass meeting. Two white men cornered him near his home. One of them gave him a crushing blow. Though he jumped back, he was hit again with a blunt object. He pinned Lafayette on the ground with the butt of his gun. Helplessly, he called out to his neighbour Mr. Red to be a witness to the killing. Red was quick to act, aiming his rifle at the men which made them run off to safety. He refers to it as a miraculous escape. “I felt an intense force that seemed to lift me up emotionally…It was a surrendering of life…with support from a power beyond myself…nonviolence really means fighting back with another purpose and with other nonviolent weapons” (Ibidem 75). The assassination attempts heated up people, awaking in them a new realization to serve the cause. The more Sheriff Clark attempted to block voter registration, the movement gathered momentum and more and more people were ready to go to jail. Regular marches were organized and more and more joined in course of time as national leaders came to Selma to support local leaders.
Rev. Vivian was at the forefront at the courthouse challenging Sheriff Clark and his deputies who were pushing back the registrants away. Rev. Vivian was struck and he protested verbally to the Sheriff to no avail. The Sheriff made them felons and was hardened in his stand never to allow the movement to succeed as he wore buttons “NEVER.”
Father Maurice Ouellet, the white Catholic Priest at Selma joined the movement, broadening the campaign. He was the first white speaker at a mass meeting, for which he was maligned by the local press. His commitment encouraged his parishioners to attempt to register to vote.
The movement leaders always kept in mind the advice of Dr. King to seek sympathy from the majority in power: white organizations, churches and labour unions. The barrier that remained for people to register to vote was the fear of consequences. However, the success in registering helped them to overcome that fear.
Chapter 5: Mountains and Valleys takes note of various incidents throughout the country, building momentum in their freedom struggle. There were countless protest songs performed all over the world at concerts by well known artists. Freedom struggles in several African nations brought independence to Tanzania, Zambia, Zimbabwe and Gambia. Lafayette speaks of the historic day for the civil rights movement on August 28, 1963 with the March on Washington with over 200,000 participants. Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech set the tone of the march seeking jobs and freedom.
The movement in Selma drew national attention with several members coming from SNCC such as Alvery Williams, Woth Long, Silas Norman Jr., and Tom Brown to keep the action moving. However, tragedy struck on September 15, 1963 when Ku Klux Klansmen blew up Sixteenth Baptist Church up the road from Selma to Birmingham, killing four young black girls. Undeterred by negative incidents Mrs. Boynton sought Dr. King’s assistance in the Voter Registration Campaign to boost momentum to the movement in Selma on Freedom Day. He brought much needed zest and support to the movement. Oppression continued with arrests and jailing of young women on Freedom Day. Untimely death of President Kennedy on November 22, 1963 was a great loss for the movement as he was a staunch supporter of freedom. As President Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 it was a landmark decision ushering in an new era of civil rights. When Dr. King was selected to receive Nobel Peace Prize in October 1964, it was a great moment of global recognition of his movement for civil rights. When Dr. King came to Selma to boost the campaign he said, “If they don’t listen once more we will dramatize the whole situation and seek to arouse the conscience of the federal government by marching by the thousands on places of registration all over this state” (Ibidem 107).
Student walk and teachers’ march in silence in Selma created a bond between students and teachers, making it a frightening experience for Sheriff Clark despite his blocking the door of the courthouse with his deputies. On February 1, 1965 several hundred marchers went with Dr. King to the courthouse after rousing mass meetings, drawing national attention to the movement. When Dr. King was confined to jail in Selma he wrote a powerful letter to get national attention focused on Selma. As he directed Lafayette to keep some activity alive every day, mass meetings and marches were held daily. Malcolm X, a controversial speaker who differed from Dr. King’s philosophy of life, came to the support of King as the only one who could unite the blacks in their civil rights movement. Lafayette also was able to bring together SCLC and SNCC despite their different approaches.
Chapter 6: The March from Selma to Motgomery records arrests of movement protesters and brutal killing of Jimmie Lee when he came to the rescue of his mother who was attacked during the march. He was shot in the stomach numerous times and became the first martyr of Selma campaign. To prove that nonviolence had its power, Jim Bevel mooted the idea of a Selma to Montgomery march to show that Jimmie’s killing did not stop the movement. The march was planned ten miles a day and to gather momentum, getting more and more to join the movement, making it a national one. People were to make their own plans for food, water and sleeping during the tedious march. Though Captain McCloud of the Alabama State Troopers ordered the marchers to disperse, leaders like Hosea Williams and John Lewis knelt down to pray aloud inspiring everyone to do the same. The troopers tossed tear gas canisters and their horses trampled them down as they slashed their heads with whips. The leaders Hosea and John and hundreds in the march suffered bloody beatings. The crowd kept singing “We Shall Overcome” demonstrating their hope of victory. As Lafayette was in Chicago on the Bloody Sunday, helpless at the turn of events, he continued to move many supporters to Selma for a massive Selma march. He had to mediate between SNCC and SCLC in their conflicting positions over visibility, publicity and money. Being a member of SNCC and having done all the ground works on the Voting Rights Campaign, he was convinced that it was necessary to let the charismatic King and SCLC to lead the second march. “With my role as peacemaker, I tried to help SNCC members understand that a larger goal – garnering national support for the voting rights issues – was more important, and that we could reach the goal more quickly with Dr. King and SCLC’s support” (Ibidem 127).
Dr. King returned to Selma two days after the Bloody Sunday and began his march with hundreds. As he reached the city limits, he knelt down and Rev. Abernathy prayed as all joined on their knees. Since Dr. King had requested all religious leaders across the country to join the Voting Rights March, Rev. James Reeb, a white Unitarian minister called upon President Johnson along with some ministers to change the laws to protect people who were registering to vote. After Rev. Reeb participated in the second march he was attacked with a lead pipe, leading to his death in hospital. His murder send shock waves among the white supporters. President Johnson in a press conference reiterated his commitment to passing the Voting Rights Legislation. Injunctions were lifted and a five day march was sanctioned by the federal government, scheduled for March 21, 1965. “Now the movement had come to their own front porches. They didn’t know what the future would hold. But they knew that change had come in their lives and they would never be the same. Some carried signs, “Selma NAACP” and “Civil Men for Civil Rights” (Ibidem 133). The event was remarkable for the poignant and most powerful “How Long, Not Long” speech Dr. King ever delivered: “The end we seek is a society at peace with itself, a society that can live with its conscience. And that will be the day not of the white man, not of the black man. That will be the day of man as man” (Ibidem 139). As the march ended there was rumours of repercussion to the march. A dedicated white activist, Viola Liuzzo, who was shuttling people back to Selma, was shot dead by Ku Klux Klan members. The day was bittersweet, celebrating victory as well as commemoration of a courageous woman who gave her life for a noble cause.
Chapter 7: Reflections on the Alabama Voter Registration Campaign comes as a fitting concluding remarks on a movement for basic human rights in a democracy. Lafayette reminisces how his life in Selma for three years brought about tremendous social change in the nation. The events and experiences taught him how nonviolence, education and activism can bring about transformation of an oppressive environment. He ever kept in mind and put into practice the last words of Dr. King before his assassination: “Bernard, the next and most important campaign we need to focus on is institutionalizing and internationalizing nonviolence” (Ibidem 148).
In the Afterword Raymond Arsenault takes stock of how America’s democratic ideals have evolved through various events that unfolded from its epicentre at Selma where Lafayette launched out his civil rights struggle.
The book contains four useful appendices: i) Example of a Literacy Test for Registering to Vote, ii) Excerpt from President Lyndon B. Johnson’s Special message to the Congress: “The American Promise,” iii) Dr. King’s Six Principles of Nonviolence Related to Selma and iv) Life Dates of Some Persons Referred in the Book. The book ends with some very useful Chronology of events.
The book is a great reading as it presents the history of a struggle for human rights and freedom. It remains a distinctive contribution to the Southern Civil Rights Movement literature. Lafayette’s personal recounting of events makes the readers enter into the very spirit of a movement built around the principle of nonviolence. The reader is drawn emotionally and spiritually into one of the greatest democratic movement ever in history through the lucid and vibrant narration.
LaFayette Jr., Bernard & Kathryn Lee Johnson. (2013). In Peace and Freedom: My Journey in Selma. Kentucky. University Press of Kenticky.
About the authors:
Bernard LaFayette Jr. Is a distinguished Senior Scholar-in-Residence at Emory University’s Candler School of Theology in Atlanta and the Chair of the National Board of the Southern Christian Leadership Conferences (SCLC). He was involved in the Civil Rights for over fifty years and an Associate of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. In the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC).
Kathryn Lee Johnson teaches in the School of Education at the University of Rhode Island. She has authored several books for educators.