Bernard Lafayette Jr., a prominent figure in the Civil Rights Movement, spoke on “Reaching Beyond Your Grasp” as part of Eastern Connecticut State University’s University Hour Series on Oct. 9 in the Student Center Theatre.
More than 200 Eastern students, faculty and staff heard Lafayette say he was “glad” and “shocked” that he is still alive today, in a response to a question asked by a student. Lafayette’s life has been threatened on many occasions, including a night when white men came to his house to kill him.
Being the target of many death threats, Lafayette had expected his life to have ended already. In fact, he stated that before he and his peers decided to take part in the Freedom Rides, he created a will. “No one can take your life if you’ve already given it,” said Lafayette.
The Freedom Rides of the 1960s were an important part of the Civil Rights Movement, which Lafayette refers to as “the movement.” He provided an in-depth look at what life was like for the forerunners of the movement, including his own contributions.
A short documentary of the Freedom Rides had been played for the audience. Included in the film were scenes of the Freedom Riders, referred to as “agitators” by law enforcement at that time, as they were badly beaten after their bus had been bombed by an angry mob. The Freedom Riders, made up of a group of black and white college students, had no protection.
The press was at the forefront of gaining justice for the Freedom Riders. News of the mob’s brutality was heard in many other countries, including our allies, who were disgusted that the United States would allow this to happen. There was a moment in the film when a black woman went to a police officer to explain that her husband was dying, only to be knocked to the ground by that same officer. Crow bars, bats and other types of weapons were used on the Freedom Riders by the mob of people. Although there is a misconception that the Freedom Rides were about integrating the buses, Lafayette explained that the demonstrations were really about bus stations and the right to be treated equally in them.
Lafayette also talked about the importance of community engagement. “You’ve got to bring them together; organize young people,” said Lafayette. “If you don’t use your rights, you will lose your rights.” He explained that there needs to be a public birthday party for eighteen-year-olds where the cost of admission would be to show their voter registration cards as part of an initiative to get young people to vote. He said that he was genuinely interested in what the next generation will contribute to the Civil Rights Movement. “Maybe the movement never really stopped; it’s continuous.” Lafayette ended his presentation by entertaining the audience with a country song about the struggle of poor white Americans.
Eastern Connecticut State University is the state’s public liberal arts university and serves approximately 5,400 students each year on its Willimantic campus and satellite locations.
It is the policy of Eastern Connecticut State University to ensure equal access to its events. If you are an individual with a disability and will need accommodations for this event, please contact the Office of University Relations at (860) 465-5735.