Protégé of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. speaks at ONU statue dedication
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. fought and ultimately gave his life for the cause of civil rights and nonviolent protest. It couldn’t have been more fitting that one of his protégés was the keynote speaker for the dedication of the University’s new bronze statue commemorating the 50-year anniversary of King’s visit to campus in 1968.
Dr. Bernard Lafayette Jr. has devoted his life to a cause that has made both strides forward and steps backward since he first became involved. He was himself mentored by King, and just hours before King’s death, Lafayette accepted this charge from him: “Martin Luther King said, ‘Now Bernard, the next thing we have to do, the next movement, is to institutionalize and to internationalize nonviolence,’” he recalls.
This is what his life’s work has been ever since, and sadly, it’s far from over. For the last five decades, he has traveled throughout the United States and 35 other countries educating people in living lives of nonviolence. More recently, he counseled the citizens of Ferguson, Mo., in nonviolent protest after the community’s unrest in 2014. He also helps lead Project Pilgrimage, a Seattle-based nonprofit that builds interracial and intergenerational community through civic programs.
Lafayette’s own life is a living testament to the power of nonviolent protest. His passion for civil rights came at a young age, and he was right there on the front lines of the civil rights movement. He emerged as a student activist with the Nashville Movement, going on to participate in the 1961 Freedom Rides and the equal voting rights movement in Selma, Ala. He co-founded the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and later was appointed by King to be national program administrator for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and national coordinator of the 1968 Poor People’s Campaign.
He was subject to savage beatings and imprisonment numerous times. It was difficult to take, but he never wavered from what he saw as his life’s purpose. It paid off, as he saw with his own eyes the changes made as a result of the movement’s efforts.
But, as King said in his speech at ONU in 1968, “we have come a long, long way, but we have a long, long way to go” – a statement that still holds true today. As someone who has dedicated his life to carrying on King’s legacy, Lafayette vows to never stop fighting for the cause because teaching people to love is the only way to defeat those who hate.
“Their purpose was to silence Martin Luther King, his voice,” he says. “But we can hear it everywhere we go. And that’s what my life was devoted to and has been and is now.”