In the spirit of Black History Month, I want to further explore one of the most remarkable interviews I’ve had the opportunity to conduct for my podcast. In episode 4 of season 3, we discussed how the church has been one of the primary drivers of racist ideologies in Europe and the United States. Beyond discussing the history of racism that came out of colonialism, I wanted to interview someone who had first-hand experience with the Civil Rights Movement’s efforts to dismantle that history.
As a result, I interviewed several different people for the human interest stories in this episode. The first was a man who lived in Chicago and was a teenager during the Civil Rights Rally of 1966. He detailed how he and his friend joined the rally with Martin Luther King, Jr. in Chicago. One of the most disturbing aspects of that interview was when he described being attacked by some of the white onlookers who were angry about MLK bringing the Civil Rights Movement to Chicago.
He and his friend were leaning against a building. Out of nowhere, the woman standing next to them started screaming. Two white teenagers had climbed into the building and were pouring battery acid onto the crowd out of the window. The woman was crying in agony from the burns that permanently scarred her head and face.
I knew that Chicago had inflicted some of the worst violence MLK ever faced during his time leading the Civil Rights Movement. I had heard the stories of white people throwing bricks at MLK, leading King to famously proclaim, “I have never seen, even in Mississippi and Alabama, mobs as hateful as I've seen here in Chicago.”
However, the acid story took me aback. There’s a certain cruelty that comes with an acid attack. Not only are the burns incredibly painful in the moment, but the subsequent disfigurement act as a continual reminder of the attack for the rest of your life.
Apparently, the boys were arrested, but my interview subject had no idea whether charges were levied by prosecutors or if the boys were brought to trial. Given the intensity of the racism in Chicago, the boys were likely released without ever facing any severe consequences.
A Lucky Break
As horrifying as this story was, the totality of the interview was lacking. Although the interview subject had participated in the Chicago march, beyond that there was little interaction with the Civil Rights Movement. The interview was insufficient in terms of building an episode around it.
A few months later, I interviewed a pastor who had been MLK’s driver when he came to Chicago and had been intimately involved in working on fair housing through the Civil Rights Movement in Chicago. However, when I conducted the interview, he had little to say about his work during that period of his life. When I asked him what he and MLK talked about while driving around the city, he said quite unremarkably, “The conditions.”
I begged him to tell me more. Here was a man who had spent hours alone with arguably the most iconic figure of the 20th century. Perhaps there was a specific conversation that stuck out in his mind? Nope. He was far more eager to talk about the present moment than to dwell on the past. Every time I attempted to steer the conversation back to his time with the Civil Rights Movement, he would demur, providing truncated or even single word answers. Sadly, once again, the interview was not robust enough to be included in the episode.
Not long after this, I hired our new reporter, Chris Renshaw, because Laura Savage was travelling abroad for 6 months. Chris proved to be very resourceful. Within two weeks, he emailed me that he had snagged an interview with Dr. Bernard Lafayette, one of the principal architects of the Civil Rights Movement. Dr. Lafayette was roommates with John Lewis at seminary. Not surprisingly, John Lewis convinced Dr. Lafayette to join him in helping to organize the movement, in particular the Freedom Rides and the March on Selma. This was the interview I had been dreaming of when I initially envisioned the episode.
My interview with Dr. Lafayette lasted almost three hours and is what makes the episode work so incredibly well. Sadly, there were a number of stories I had to leave on the cutting room floor. I wanted to relay a few of those stories because, as amazing as the episode came out, there were several anecdotes that highlight what a truly unique and remarkable man Bernard Lafayette is and why he was such a pivotal figure to the success of the Civil Rights Movement. Below you can read some of these stories or you can listen to him telling the story by clicking the audio player.
The Flower Shop
The episode begins with Bernard Lafayette describing his childhood of growing up in a house located directly in-between two cigar factories in Tampa, Florida. The children of the factory workers would come over to play at his house during the day. He had all manner of fruit trees in his backyard and his friends would swing in the trees like Tarzan, eating fresh mangos, oranges and avocados whenever the urge struck them. Because the factories employed all kinds of people from various ethnic backgrounds, Bernard had a very multi-cultural childhood.
However, where his childhood took an interesting turn was when his mother and father moved to Philadelphia when he was eleven years old. Bernard was a very responsible child and his parents expected him to get a job to help out around the house. His first job in Philly was working at a floral shop called Church Florists. Mr. Church hired Bernard initially as a delivery boy. He would deliver the arrangements on his bicycle. However, once Mr. Church saw how smart Bernard was, he taught him how to create arrangements.
When the summer came, Mr. Church took some vacation with his family. He left his business in the hands of his two employees: Bernard and an older woman. However, one weekend, Bernard came to the store and the older woman, who was supposed to help him run the shop, decided not to come to work. Bernard called her several times over the weekend, but she never answered her phone. Left in charge of the store, Bernard had to do everything by himself—take orders, create the arrangements and deliver them.
When Monday came around, the elderly woman showed up to work. Bernard asked her why she didn’t answer the phone. Her response: She didn’t feel like it. Bernard, at 11 years old, told her she was fired. However, knowing this job was her sole source of income, Bernard hired this woman’s niece to work instead. This way, her family retained the income and Mr. Church would have a reliable employee.
This was the first story Dr. Lafayette told me where I realized he was a very unique individual. If you ever wondered how a 21-year-old could be one of the primary organizers of the Civil Rights Movement, this story provides some insight into his personality and how he possessed innate leadership qualities from a very early age.
The Philly Gang
As a teenager in Philly, Bernard’s mother would send him to buy milk and bread. Unfortunately, in Philadelphia, there were numerous street gangs of teenagers that controlled the various blocks around the neighborhood. The boys in his neighborhood would intercept him on the way to the store and give him an ultimatum: Join our gang or we steal your money. Bernard didn’t want to join the gang, so he gave them his money.
The first two times this happened, Bernard told his mother that he lost the money in the rain grate on the street. The third time, his mother said, “Has it ever occurred to you that you could walk around the grates rather than walking over them?” Bernard was feeling so guilty for lying to his mother that he decided he couldn’t do it anymore. The next time his mother gave him money to go buy food, he was confronted by the gang and he said, “I’ll join your gang, but I want to become your leader.”
The kids thought this was hilarious. One kid thought fell on the ground he was laughing so hard. The leader of this gang was a big teenager named Lawrence Philips and Bernard was just skin and bones. When they realized he was serious, they walked into an alley because the only way Bernard could become the leader was by defeating Lawrence in a fight. Bernard walked up to Lawrence, turned his head as if he were looking away, and when he turned back around he punched Lawrence in the face.
Lawrence fell to the ground and blood was everywhere. Bernard had hit Lawrence so hard that he had knocked his teeth out of his mouth. The boys pulled Bernard off of Lawrence. The fight was over and Bernard was named the new leader of the gang. Dr. Lafayette explained that this was the one and only time in his life that he resorted to violence as means of settling disputes. He took control of the neighborhood gang and, from this point forward, he would always employ methods of diplomacy, passive resistance and non-violence to get his way.
Desegregating the Lunch Counters
When Bernard was first introduced to the Civil Rights Movement by John Lewis in seminary, their first act of civil disobedience was integrating the lunch counters in Nashville, TN. The most famous of these efforts was filmed at the lunch counters at Woolworths. However, Woolworths was not the only restaurant where the activists focused their efforts. They also chose smaller establishments around the city.
Bernard was sent to a small eatery, which only had a few seats. There was one waitress in the eatery and she demanded that Bernard and his crew leave. When they refused, she locked the door and started dumping cleaning chemicals all around them. She was hoping the smell would inspire them to abandon their post. When that didn’t work, she took out a hose and started spraying them with water. One of the women in Bernard’s crew, a nurse from Meharry Medical School, was wearing a fur coat. The water soaked the coat, making it extremely heavy and uncomfortable to wear.
Next, the waitress resorted to fumigating chemicals that created smoke. A Jewish man came across the eatery as this was happening. He attempted to break through the door to help the protestors because he feared the chemicals were going to kill them likes the Jews who were murdered in the gas chambers during the Holocaust. The police had to contain him because he was so upset.
In another incident at a separate restaurant, Dr. Lafayette described sitting next to a woman at a lunch counter. A white man enraged by the efforts of the protestors, took a match and lit her hair on fire. Bernard reacted quickly and patted the fire out on her head. Ironically, instead of thanking Bernard, this woman said, “Don’t interfere with my suffering.”
Dr. Lafayette explained how he’s been thinking about that comment for the last 60 years. Would she have preferred that he not put out the fire? Unimpeded, the fire would have caused serious damage to the skin on her scalp. This example illustrates how challenging it could be to navigate all the various personalities involved in these protests. Although she chided Dr. Lafayette for his efforts, he still believes he made the right decision.
The March on Selma
Perhaps one of the most interesting aspects of our conversation was discussing Selma. Bernard wanted to be the director of a voter registration drive, but almost all the locations had directors. The only place that didn’t was Selma because the feeling was that the white people were too mean and the black people were too scared. In fact, during the Freedom Rides, Selma had been bypassed because there was a mob waiting for the buses if they came through.
Bernard was determined to figure out a way to bring a voter registration drive to Selma, so he spent time doing research to understand the history of the town. What he discovered is that the white residents of Selma were very upset that the capital of Alabama had been moved from Cahaba, which was in the same county as Selma, to Montgomery. Indeed, his research was confirmed when Bernard moved to Selma to prepare for the voter registration drive. While in a local drug store, he heard some white folks discussing this very issue.
Part of the reason why the white residents of Selma were so hellbent on preventing voter registration of their black residents was because they wanted to prove that they were stronger than Montgomery. If they could prevent the voter registration drive from happening, this would demonstrate that Cahaba would have been the superior capital.
Another element that drove their fierce opposition is that the black and white residents of Selma all knew each other quite well. Most of the black residents worked for white families. Indeed, they were so intermixed in terms of their economy that there were not separate black banks where black families took out loans. The white banks had mortgages on the black churches and black homes in the area.
Therefore, unlike Birmingham and Montgomery where the churches and houses that were bombed by white supremacist groups were mortgaged by black banks, everyone’s property in Selma remained safe because those properties were backed by the white bankers in town. Even more strange, the black residents understood this balance of power and, initially, were not particularly interested in the voter registration drive being offered by the Civil Rights Movement.
However, thanks to Bernard’s efforts to engage with the Black community in Selma, he was able to garner the necessary support to convince the SCLC that Selma was worth the investment. If you would like to hear Dr. Lafayette’s recollection of crossing the Edmund Pettus Bridge on Bloody Sunday, you can listen below.
I hope you enjoyed some of the cutting room floor highlights from my interview with Dr. Lafayette. In truth, there are many other portions of this interview that are amazing and are worthy of being shared in future posts. I feel blessed to have been touched by such an integral figure in our nation’s history. Similar to when I interviewed Magda Brown, a survivor of Auschwitz for season 1, the people who lived these events will soon be gone from this earth (Magda died in 2020 at the age of 93).
If I have learned anything in my short lifetime, passing down the stories of great heroes is essential for the preservation of our society. Of course, listening to stories does not guarantee we will always avoid repeating the sins of the past. All we can hope for is that these stories will inspire those alive now and future generations to appreciate the bravery and courage required to make the world a better place. If you have any reflections on this interview, I would love to read your thoughts in the comments below.