American Experience; Freedom Riders; Interview with Bernard Lafayette, Jr. , 1 of 3
(long beep) [Interviewer]: So Bernard, what was interstate travel like for black people back there, hold on one sec, sorry You know, so many people now have, have forgotten what it was like to travel interstate back then. Talk about what it was like for black people to travel in the south. [Bernard]: Well one of the thing, um, that happened to black people when they were traveling in the south back, uh, during the uh, early sixties and uh, back in the fifties, was that you followed your parents' lead and they had been uh, culturated to be able to plan for these trips. For example, we knew that we weren't able to use the eating facilities so we carried, uh box lunches in a sense. In fact, uh, even in the
train transportation we called them, the uh, you know the shoe- box-special, chicken-bone-special, cause you always had some chicken and the first day you ate your potato salad because it wouldn't go bad and you had some biscuits or cornbread and that sort of thing and when that was over, then you had to sort of scrounge around and hope that you would find some food along the way. By that time you got to the north, even coming from Florida, okay, after so many hours, uh, you'd be able to, uh, get some food. There was was a switchin' of the buses (person coughing) Well you might want to use this material, I don't know, but, the truth of the matter is, I enjoyed riding in the back of the bus. Number one, you're in a position of advantage.
You could see everybody else on the bus. The other thing that happened is that the other people couldn't see you, 'cause you were behind them. So you weren't subject for people to stare at. The next thing is that the back of the bus was the safest... [Interviewer]: Alright Barry, you're right, we're never gonna use that. [Bernard]: I know you ain't gonna use it, so if you ask me, I'm gonna tell you now, okay? [Other speaker]: Well I guess.. [Bernard]: In the winter, you had a heated seat. [Interviewer]: I guess the idea though Bernard is, is, is, why? [Bernard]: I'm gonna get to that point. [Interviewer]: Okay, okay. [Bernard]: You're supposed to let me run. and then you put your finger up [Interviewer]: Okay [Bernard]: Okay, but don't interrupt me, okay. Now, the next thing is it was the safest place on the bus because most of the arrests? took place in the front so it wasn't a position on the bus, it was a purpose and a reason to put us in the back and that was to make us feel that we
weren't as good as the other people who sat up front. So it wasn't a matter of not being comfortable, physically, it was psychologically knowing that the reason we were segregated, because they felt we were inferior, and they were better than we were. So that had much more to do with the psy- psychological effect than any other effect. The other problem was on the bus, okay, was that, uh, in Montgomery, Alabama, for example, on the local public transportation many times you put your money in the front, you got off the bus, and walked to the back and the bus driver would close the door and take off with your money. So you were uncomfortable emotionally because you weren't sure how you would be treated. Certainly, you knew that when the bus got full uh, you would have to stand up if more white people got on. And so the treatment that you got, that more than anything else and that happened
on the uh, Greyhound bus and Trailways bus also. An um, that was a thing that we wanted to change. Respect for us, as human beings. [Interviewer]: Um, I wanna jump ahead, you guys were in uh, Nashville, how about the training, that that that you got in Nashville. The training we got was basically for the sit-ins but that carried over. The training was number one, to understand that when you took action it wasn't simply a protest, but your actions were part of a strategy to change the conditions. So we had to anticipate what would happen as a result of any action we took and what we were prepared to do once we got the consequences for our actions. In Nashville we understood
if we get arrested or we got beaten or we got ignored at the lunch counters for example, we would return. So it wasn't over, just another... for the purpose of making a point or showin' our frustration or disgust. We were trained in Nashville to change conditions. That's why it was no coincidence in three months our sit-in movement changed the seating pattern. We desegregated downtown, uh, lunch counters, three months. [Interviewer]: Mhmm, let's cut [Other speaker]: Yes [Interviewer]: What happened in Nashville, can, if you can, give me that in the small bit? And, that you won? [Bernard]: In Nashville, we were able to accomplish our goal, and that was to desegregate the lunch counters based on the training and philosophy that we got, which carried over into the freedom rides. And one of the things we learned was that you have to
be consistent and you have to continue to repeat your actions. Uh, for example, if you are able to gain the front page of the newspaper for ten days in a row, you had a movement. So you had a plan a strategy of how you could continue to raise your issue in a dramatic way, long enough for people to understand that this was a condition that existed that needed to be changed. Uh, after ten days of course, you had people in the north and other people uh, even out of our, our of our country and other countries were concerned about this because it was repeated over and over again, and that's one of the strategies that we learned. So when the Freedom Rides took place and those of us in Nashville were gonna go on the Freedom Rides; I couldn't go because you had to be... [Interviewer]: Okay, I'm sorry,
cut, okay.. [Bernard]: ...the lunch counters at the Greyhound bus station in Nashville before the Freedom Rides. [Interviewer]: Okay, but you dese- [Bernard]: Because there were lunch counters [Interviewer]: Right. But you desegregated a lot of things, right? [Bernard]: Train station too. So, we talk about the freedom rides and you've-- compared to Nashville, we'd already desegregated local facilities, not the buses. But, yeah, we've done the buses 'cause uh, as you say, John Lewis and I, you know, we weren't arrested. [Interviewer]: Let's cut for a minute. ...One thing that's uh, that's amazing is that the people who were part of the movement in Nashville, many times, were so young. You guys were students. Talk about that. It was 'cause this, this,
seems that there's kind of this, this sense of brashness, of, you know, of youth, of we can, we're just gonna go do it, we can do this. You know, where others, the SCLC, the NAACP you know, they're kind of holding back you know they, talk about legal means but you guys were just out there on the front lines. Why? [Bernard]: Well that's for two reasons. One is that the strategy for bringing about changes had changed. Prior to, uh, the Montgomery movement and, the uh, sit ins and Freedom Rides and that sort of thing, the traditional approach for changing the conditions, was changing the law. Uh, period. And you did that through legal means, Thurgood Marshall went to Supreme Court 25 times. One. So the idea of, um,
uh, people taking any kind of direct action, it was for a test case to go to court, not to use the action for change in that community per se, but it was to gain the action as a basis for going on appeal to change the law. Martin Luther King ushered in a new approach and that was the involvement of masses of people. You take a big risk when you get large numbers of people involved because people are individuals and that's why the train was so important that those of us who were in the leadership were trained. All of the people who participated in the Montgomery bus boycott for example were not trained, but they followed trained leadership and they trusted their leadership and they believed that change would take place and that's why you got large numbers of people involved. Now, the youth, the
second point, is that because we didn't have the kind of obligations... We had classes. We had to go to school. But, we didn't bring in a paycheck and we didn't have to show up at work, okay? So we were free to lose a day out of school or two days or whatever, and be able to make those days up. Now, as, I want to make a point in the movement, in Nashville for example, we did not allow our medical students to get arrested. So, their role was different. They designed the newsletters and the statement of purpose and the press release and that sort of thing because we did not want any of our future doctors to miss any classes. And they were obedient in terms of the leadership making that requirement. So, there are many different roles that people can play and of course the medical students were older than you know the eighteen and nineteen year olds.
But, we felt that, um, you know if they could go, if we could go to Vietnam, and put on a uniform and fight for our country, okay? we were old enough to fight for our country here. And our attitude was patriotic. We wanted to make a better America. We want to make better conditions for everybody. Remember, there were whites who joined our movement who were killed and beaten and that sort of thing also. And it was mainly because they wanted the same thing for us that they had enjoyed. [Interviewer]: Okay, um, I want to go to the Freedom Rides and talk about the Freedom Rides. When did you first hear that, um, they had decided to cancel the, the, the, to stop the Freedom Rides, that they had called off the Freedom Rides. Do you remember when you first heard that? And, and, and how you all in Nashville felt. And, and, and, first I want to talk about the the um, the decision to uh, so, no, not even the decision,
you hear in Nashville, that the rides have been cancelled, that they're gonna fly up to New Orleans. What was the response in, in, Nashville, by the students in Nashville? [Bernard]: Well because of our training, we always took the position that when we were faced with an avalanche of violence, that we had to respond with a macro nonviolence and that somehow we couldn't let, um, violence rule the day. Have, you know the purpose of violence was to stop our, uh, progressive action. So, if we were to stop our progressive action then they would succeed by using violence. And we wanted to give a new conclusion to that statement, and we felt that uh, nonviolence would work, we just had to work it, and so therefore we decided that we would drop out of school in the middle of our exams and that we would, uh, continue to have freedom rides and some people say, "Well, why don't you wait until you finish your exams?" Well, we just started,
that would have been a whole week and we wanted to strike while the iron was hot so we rode through the, you know, the smoke, so to speak to get there, alright? And there was a strategy that we used in Nashville. [Interviewer]: Mhmm, let's stop for a minute. Why don't you drink some water, I think your voice.. [Interviewer]: You decided to go on the Freedom Rides, so you decided to send two groups. Why? [Bernard]: Well, we decided to send two groups, once the freedom rides stopped. One was the fact that they had already made a statement that they were prepared to, uh, attempt to kill people. When you set a bus on fire and you hold the front door, that's every reason to believe that they were trying to suffocate the people or burn them alive. So we knew that these people were serious because they had demonstrated that. Well, we wanted a Freedom Ride to continue regardless of what happened so we
thought we would divide the group in half, and John Lewis was a spokesman for the first group. He was on the original freedom ride. He had all the documents and the contacts and places we were gonna stay, and mass meetings and people who were gonna meet us at the bus stations and that kind of thing. He went on the first group. The first group. And we had a second group, in case if that group did not survive. If that group had been arrested, beaten, unable to continue, or even killed, we had a second group that was ready to go. And they knew, that no matter what happened, okay? I would bring a second group. But then it was actually three groups because we decided then once they get arrested down in Birmingham, Alabama, having left Nashville by bus. that We knew they were looking for us, by bus. But we wanted to rendezvous in Birmingham where the Freedom Ride had stopped
and now where our first group had been arrested. So we sent five by car and five by train and we would rendezvous to get there. So there were actually three different groups going. And, uh, we wanted to make sure that one group at least would be able to survive and continue the Freedom Rides. [Interviewer]: Mmhmm, you- you know, (clears throat) you're talking about this, you know, you thought, you know, there's a chance you could be killed. Um, they had just burnt the bus, they had just beat all these people up in Birmingham, you know, um, weren't you all scared? What about the fear? Weren't you all scared to do this? You're 18, 19. Were you scared? [Bernard]: All the fear we had was that there would not be enough of us to continue that Freedom Ride and that the attitude and momentum would die, like it did with CORE (Congress of Racial Equality) and they decided to to put a freeze on the Freedom Rides because of the
danger. We knew it was dangerous, but what was more dangerous was to allow the violent activity to stop us. That would have been the greatest danger. [Interviewer]: Mhmm, great. Um, What was the reaction, um, from CORE and SCLC, NAACP, when you all say, you know, okay, we're, we're, we're going we're going. What was the reaction? [Bernard]: Well, on the local level, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference affiliate, which was a Nashville Christian leadership council, they tried to discourage us from going because they felt like fatherly and motherly figures and they felt some responsibility, they knew us. (pause) They didn't want to go to our funerals.
But there comes a time when things are out of your hands, and things are supposed to happen, in spite of how you feel. So they wrote us a check to buy the tickets, but the check only had one signature. So they knew it meant that we couldn't get a check cashed with one signature. Not for 900 dollars in those days. So there was Leo Lillard who went and found a numbers man who had the cash and agreed to cash a check and then, uh, get the next signature the next day, a second signature. So by the time the sun rose (laughs) we were already en route to Birmingham and there were older adults, um, ministers group, uh, was just absolutely uh, chagrinned, that we found our way out. Well, what happened is when we were met with violence, um, some of them
knew that, that, um, they had to bring their support and they joined us. [Interviewer]: Um, so you come down as, as, as, the, uh, let me, let me just ask this again. [Bernard]: That's the first time that happened. But, I was thinking of myself in their position, you see. [Interviewer]: Mmhmm. [Bernard]: That you gonna encourage these young people to go? [Interviewer]: Now did they, did they talk to you about not going? [Bernard]: Oh, yes. [Interviewer]: What did they say? What was that conversation like between you two? [Bernard]: Um, I don't remember the exact words, but it was something like, you know, you probably need to wait [Interviewer]: Okay, I'm sorry but you're, I'm not gonna be here so you gotta say what what what what the older people said to us or something like that for the intro. [Bernard]: When the Freedom Rides, uh, were broken up with uh, violence and the bus burning and the students from Nasheville wanted to go on the Freedom Ride to continue it, the older adults in the Southern
Christian Leadership Conference affiliate, the Nashville Christian leadership council, like Kelly Miller Smith and some of the others, uh, tried to reason with us and maybe we should wait until they were able to get some kind of protection or security for us because you know we were sort of impetuous and we wanted to just go like young people. But, we'd been taught in terms of strategy. And we had succeeded in other cases so this was another challenge to us. And their argument was not that strong. They felt a sense of obligation to try to discourage us and they made their point. But they probably already knew that we had learned too well that you don't wait. [Interviewer]: Why not? [Bernard]: Because you can't allow a situation to cool off once it leaves the news and once people go back to being complacent,
it was all too easy for that to happen, so we realized from previous experiences that we had to, uh, move with the momentum if we were going to make any kind of, uh, substantial changes or gains. [Interviwer]: Mmhmm, uh, you went down there with a second, second wave and so you get to the Birm- Birm- to the Birmingham bus station, talk about that, um you know, when you go to the Birmingham bus station- You need some water or anything like that? Are you good? [Bernard]: I could drink some water. [Bernard]: Back to the state line. [Interviewer]: Yeah, yeah, so we talked to Catherine and uh, we're gonna talk to John Lewis and some other people who were part of that. [Bernard]: And Leo, [Interviewer]: Leo? [Bernard]: Leo was one, Leo Lillard [Interviewer]: Ah yeah, no, we haven't talked to him. [Bernard]: You didn't talk to him? [Interviewer]: Where's he? [Bernard]: I thought he was coming with um, [Interviewer]: Tomorrow?... [Bernard]: It was a the headquarters in Nashville, we opened up our office about 24 hours. [Interviewer]: Uh huh [Bernard]: Okay, Leo was
in charge of it. [Interviewer]: Cut. ...Birmingham... [Bernard]: When we rendezvous'ed to Shuttlesworth's House... [Interviewer]: Yeah, I think, you know we can, there's a lot, stuff, we gotta, details we gotta skip, 'cause this is gonna be, you know ?, [Bernard]: Okay [Interviewer]: And you end up in the Birmingham... [Bernard]: Bus station. [Interviewer]: Bus station. And uh, what was it like? What, talk about the Birmingham Bus Station. [Bernard]: When the second group arrived and then we went to the bus station in Birmingham, and regrouped with all the others who had, uh, from Nashville, who had gone down. We approached the buses that were labeled, uh, Montgomery, 'cause that's where we had, uh, tickets. We bought interstate tickets all the way to New Orleans. Our tickets said, "New Orleans." So it had tear offs for each of the cities where we stopped: interstate travel. When you had intrastate travel in those days you had one single ticket. Looks like a raffle ticket.
Okay. So, uh, we sat there and the bus said, uh, Birmingham, Montgomery, and we approached and stood in line and the bus, uh, driver refused to drive. So, we couldn't. No one left, even the regular passengers. So we sat back down, and we were sitting in the white designated, uh, waiting room. And, uh, there was there weren't a lot of people in the waiting room at like, at 1 or 2 o'clock in the morning, (laughs) Okay, but, uh, this was my first encounter face to face with the Ku Klux Klan. They had on white sheets and their hoods were thrown back and they walked around in the bus station while we were there and they stepped on our feet. They threw cold water on our faces.
The policemen from the, uh, Birmingham were there and, uh, and every now and then we would hear one of the batons hit the marble floor because they were falling asleep and, uh, even when they were awake they were not concerned about us. When we went to the restroom, we all went together and just jammed the restroom so no one else can get in because we didn't want to have to get caught separated, you know, and by the klan. There was one klansman who had a black robe and a huge serpent on the back of this robe. And I was curious about him because we had known about him already and he was Reverend Robert Shelton from Tuscaloosa, Alabama and he was the Imperial Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan. That was short man you know not too stocky, and he was there all night walking around. There were the news reporters there and the cameramen and that sort of thing as well but very few other, uh, you know, travelers there,
or patrons. But, uh, no eating facilities were available for us. They closed all that and, uh, we sat there. Some of us did nod off once in a while that night, waiting for the next bus. But it was very, otherwise it was very quiet and very eerie. And uh, there was not a, like a lot of noise or that kind of thing. And every now and then, they'd come by and step on our feet. They had these huge Brogan shoes on, and uh, they didn't slap us or get physical other than that. [Interviewer]: Were you aware of, of this kind of negotiations that's goin' on behind the scenes, um, between you know, uh Robert Kennedy and the governor, and Kennedy's people and there's this whole other thing going on to try and get you guys out of there. Were you aware of any of that? [Bernard]: Only at the point where a reporter came to us and say that "the Attorney General has a bus for you so you'll be able to leave" and
we didn't know what that was all about and where that bus was going. [Interviewer]: I'm gonna have to have you start over again, 'cause you kinda started in the middle of the sentence, you know, so my question's not gonna be there... [Bernard]: Alright, okay, alright [Interviewer]: So, what did you when did you realize that, that, that, uh, Bobby Kennedy, Attorney General, was, was, involved? [Bernard]: We only realized that the, uh, negotiations between the Attorney General and the bus company and the other leaders in the civil rights movement, uh was going on when a reporter came to us and said, uh, "The Attorney General has a bus for you." And that was near that morning, like about maybe 4, uh, no it was like 6 o'clock in the morning, and uh, they said "they're gonna get a bus for you and take you." And we weren't sure about this so we started making some inquiries and found out, true enough, that the Attorney General had gotten a bus and the bus was gonna take us nonstop to New Orleans. And we also learned that the bus did not have a
restroom. It was an older bus that was mainly used for short trips and we had available these interstate tickets, so we went immediately with Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth, who was a minister there and bought one way tickets to Montgomery. So, they couldn't take us any further than Montgomery, otherwise it'd be tantamount to kidnap. So we didn't present our interstate tickets. Only the one-way tickets. So they were a little upset that we had, uh, changed our destination uh, like our final destination to Montgomery. And that's when we learned that this kind of thing had happened. So this negotiation was going on over the night. [Interviewer]: So, when you give 'em the tickets that, to Montgomery, then they
back off and decide to do something else, is that what happened? [Bernard]: Well, they had to regroup, to decide how they were gonna handle this because in this case there was not going to be a continuous ride all the way to New Orleans. The-- It was, it didn't take long. They decided it'd be better to get us out of there as quickly as possible and the Attorney General and the bus company all agreed and they, we got, uh, we boarded the bus and, uh, it was interesting because the supervisor for the bus station, Greyhound Bus Station, also rode the bus with us in addition to the driver. And I think the driver insisted that that would happen. His supervisor, so he'd know what to do. And, um, you had, um these state troopers, and you had the local policemen
- American Experience
- Freedom Riders
- Raw Footage
- Interview with Bernard Lafayette, Jr. , 1 of 3
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- WGBH (Boston, Massachusetts)
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- Bernard Lafayette, Jr. was part of the Nashville, Tennessee, via Birmingham, Alabama, to Montgomery, Alabama ride, May 16-20, 1961.
- American history, African Americans, civil rights, racism, segregation, activism, students
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- MLA: “American Experience; Freedom Riders; Interview with Bernard Lafayette, Jr. , 1 of 3.” WGBH, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (WGBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC. Web. August 9, 2020. <http://americanarchive.org/catalog/cpb-aacip-15-dn3zs2m89m>.
- APA: American Experience; Freedom Riders; Interview with Bernard Lafayette, Jr. , 1 of 3. Boston, MA: WGBH, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (WGBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC. Retrieved from http://americanarchive.org/catalog/cpb-aacip-15-dn3zs2m89m