The Rev. Dr. Bernard LaFayette, Jr., is a longtime civil rights activist, organizer, and an authority on nonviolent social change. He co-founded the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) in 1960, and was a core leader of the civil rights movement in Nashville, Tennessee, in 1960 and in Selma, Alabama, in 1965. He is the instructor of the course, From Freedom Rides to Ferguson: Narratives of Nonviolence in the American Civil Rights Movement.
WHY DID YOU DECIDE TO TEACH THIS COURSE ON COURSERA?
There is a large number of young people who ordinarily wouldn’t have access to this information, and aren’t exposed to the history of social conflicts. While they do have an urge or passion to take some kind of action, in many cases, they don’t have good examples and successful models they can turn to for guidance. I want to make my contributions by helping them understand strategy. It’s one thing to be concerned by a problem, another to take action, and then a whole other thing to take the kind of action that has the potential to bring about changes and solve it. When I was active in the Civil Rights Movement, my peers and I had intensive training before we started with our direct action. It was no coincidence we desegregated the lunch counters in Nashville within three months. It was no coincidence that the freedom rides led to government action within one year. My whole commitment today still is to train leaders and trainers who will help the leadership of these movements, such as in Ferguson, achieve change.
CAN YOU BRIEFLY EXPLAIN THE CONCEPT OF “NONVIOLENT CONFLICT TRANSFORMATION?”
The nonviolence philosophy, which is espoused by Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. has proven to be very effective as a way of life, rather than just a tactic or method that’s used to respond to conflict and violence. It has a transformative effect. If you want to succeed in solving the problem of violence, you need to have an appreciation for its history and impact. We want people to have an understanding of the wide destruction violence can have on perpetrators, as well as innocent people. When we talk about violence, it’s not just about physical confrontations. Sometimes, words can be just as violent, and often much more permanent because of the invisible pain and scars people suffer. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. used to say that it takes longer for the internal scars to heal than the external ones. Nonviolent conflict transformation also helps people understand the stages of violence. With this knowledge, they can prevent it from escalating. Violence starts on the inside. People can control the violence within and, in turn, prevent the violence externally.
WHAT CAN CONTEMPORARY ORGANIZERS LEARN FROM THE 1950-60S CIVIL RIGHTS MOVEMENT?
Although the movements are different, they both require deliberate resistance. The movement today is focused on changing behaviors and attitudes, whereas back in the day, we were trying to change actual laws of segregation that people felt justified sustaining. I admire the young people who decided to take a stand and march in the protests, refusing to be silenced. The worst kind of violence is a violence where people go from being persecuted to being silenced. That is what you call negative peace. People become silent because they feel as if there is nothing they can do about the situation to cause any change. But to stand up, protest, and let your attitudes be known gives some implication that you’re not going to tolerate this situation. To refuse silence is the only way to change these conditions.
The first thing is that the leadership of organizations working on similar issues needs to come together. All of the movements back in the sixties, we brought together in a coalition of leadership – not just one person or just one organization. Throughout, there was the NAACP, the Urban League, CORE, SNCC. Then during the March on Washington, even more groups came together in the coalition. Secondly, there needs to be a specific goal and, in turn, a very clear and specific change you’re trying to achieve. Then you have to look at what it takes to make the change happen, and which individuals sitting in positions of power can help with that.
DO YOU HAVE ANY ADVICE FOR PEOPLE WHO WANT TO HELP ENACT POSITIVE SOCIAL CHANGE, BUT FEEL LIKE THEY HAVE LIMITED AGENCY?
When I went to Selma, Alabama to start the board of education project, I spent a long time doing research to build a foundation. Before me, the national office had sent two teams of people to Selma, who both came back with the conclusion that nothing could be done; they had an X on the map where Selma was. Once I got there, I saw and understood what these teams had experienced, but I had to think about what I could do to make a difference. The conditions exist, but, what can be done to change those conditions? First thing is that you’ve got to believe in your heart that change can occur, in spite of the situation at hand. Because if you conclude that change cannot take place, then you become a part of the problem. You contribute to the “fact” that change will not occur.
If you take action over and over again, and nothing happens – people may begin to assume that change cannot occur. But time is not the most important factor. You take a stance for what is right, and you stand as long as the wrong exists. You learn how to strengthen your stance, and get more people standing with you. If you stand in the right place at the right time, you will cause others to join you, and the change will come when enough of them do.7