Citation for Bernard LaFayette, Jr.

Monday, May 21, 2012 - 13:02

Honorary degree recipient

(Video of LaFayette's acceptance speech)

Reverend Doctor Bernard LaFayette, Jr., civil rights activist, organizer, and authority on nonviolent social change: you co-founded the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) in 1960, and were one of the core leaders of the civil rights movements in Nashville in 1960 and in Selma in 1965. You directed the Alabama Voter Registration Project in 1962 and were appointed by the Reverend Doctor Martin Luther King, Jr. to be national program administrator for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and national coordinator of the 1968 Poor People’s Campaign. Of your many courageous efforts to make the United States a nation that lives up to the promise of its founding, we honor you especially today as a Freedom Rider and as a teacher.

In 1961, the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) initiated a movement to enforce federal integration laws on interstate bus routes. This movement became known as the Freedom Rides. From May to November 1961, more than 400 black and white Americans risked their lives, with many enduring savage beatings and imprisonment simply for traveling together on buses and trains through the South. You were 20 years old, an undergraduate at a seminary in Nashville, and already a veteran of sit-ins, when you arrived on a Greyhound bus in Montgomery, Alabama, along with 22 other Freedom Riders. Surrounded the minute you stepped off the bus, you suffered three cracked ribs and watched as several of your friends, including John Lewis, were beaten unconscious. In a riveting account you wrote a year ago for the New York Times, you described how Martin Luther King, Jr. gathered you and others into a church surrounded by a hostile and violent mob, asked for and received a commitment to nonviolence, and then proceeded to demonstrate that commitment in the face of armed hatred. You took the lesson you learned that day and translated it into a lifetime of leadership.

You were the first of the leading southern civil rights activists to turn to nonviolent organizing, working on the 1966 Chicago Open Housing Movement. You were also ordained as a Baptist minister, earned a doctorate from Harvard with a thesis on Pedagogy for Peace and Nonviolence, served on the faculties of Columbia Theological Seminary in Atlanta and Alabama State University in Montgomery, where you were Dean of the Graduate School, started the God-Parents Clubs, a national community-based program aimed at preventing the systematic incarceration of black youth, and founded the Association for Kingian Nonviolence, Education, and Training Works. Over the half century since you stepped off that bus in Montgomery, you have become recognized across this nation and around the word as a leading authority on strategies for nonviolent social change and one of the leading teachers of nonviolent direct action.

In a 2003 interview, you talked about your 1960 stint in a Nashville jail, where you had been imprisoned for protesting. You described the schedule that you and your fellow protesters created, complete with times for quiet, times for devotion, times for study. This is what you said: “Even when you’re in jail, you have an opportunity to transform. The place does not make the person, but the person defines the place. We were students, so the cells were the classrooms, because it’s what you do in that space and who you are that makes the difference. So we were students. We had books. We were studying. We were preparing. The jailers came to understand that this is the internal discipline and the understanding of who you are that makes the place what it is.”

For all you have done, and for the courage and grace with which you have done it, to help this nation seek equality without violence, Mount Holyoke is proud to bestow upon you the degree of Doctor of Humane Letters, honoris causa.