Bernard Lafayette Jr. (born July 29, 1940) is a longtime civil rights activist and organizer, who was a leader in the1960s Civil Rights Movement. He played a leading role in early organizing of the Selma, Alabama, voting rights campaign; was a member of the Nashville Student Movement; and worked closely throughout the 1960s movements with groups such as the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), and the American Friends Service Committee.
In 1961, the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) initiated a movement to enforce federal integration laws on interstate bus routes. This movement, known as the Freedom Rides, had African American and white volunteers ride together on bus routes through the segregated South. Lafayette wanted to participate, but his parents forbade him. After the Freedom Riders were violently attacked in the city of Birmingham, Alabama, the Nashville Student Movement, of which Lafayette was a member, vowed to take over the journey. At the time, some civil rights leaders worried that the Freedom Rides were too provocative and would damage the movement. Despite many doubts, these Nashville students were determined to finish the job.
In May 1961, in the city of Montgomery, Alabama, Lafayette and the other riders were “greeted” at the bus terminal by an angry white mob, members of Ku Klux Klan chapters, and were viciously attacked. The Freedom Riders were brutally beaten. Their attackers carried every makeshift weapon imaginable: baseball bats, wooden boards, bricks, chains, tire irons, pipes, and even garden tools.
During the Montgomery attack, Lafayette stood firm; his fellow riders William Barbee and John Lewis were beaten until they fell unconscious. Lafayette, Fred Leonard and Allen Cason narrowly escaped being killed by jumping over a wall and running to the post office. Everyone inside was carrying on individual business, just like nothing was happening outside. Lafayette later stated, ” I thought they were shooting Freedom Riders.” It was the gunshot of Alabama’s Director of Public Safety, Floyd Mann, who was fighting for the protection of the Freedom Riders.
Lafayette with other Riders was arrested in Jackson, Mississippi, and jailed at Parchman State Prison Farm during June 1961. During Lafayette’s participation in civil rights activities, he was beaten and arrested 27 times.