American Experience; Freedom Riders; Interview with Bernard Lafayette, Jr. , 2 of 3
[Interviewer]: Oh just what I knew it... Stop messing, it's fiddling. Um, Talk about agonizing over the decision to uh, to drop out of school and, and be part of this. [Bernard]: It was not a easy decision because what it meant was dropping out of school in the midst of our final exams. And, for some of us that we were the first generation to go to college. We had other younger sisters and brothers Our parents had really made sacrifices for us to be in college. And, we were making a decision to drop out because one these, you know, this was more important than going, what could be more important than finishing college. In fact, only having a few days to finish your final exams. How could this be so urgent? And we had to think about it from our parents' point of view and it was not easy because our parents were depending
on us. We know they loved us and they sacrificed for us. How would this make them feel? Was this the responsible decision to make if we were mature and if we cared about our parents even? Would this be the thing to do? Why should we do this? But there was a lot of overriding logic based on our training. Had we not been trained? Oh no, we would not drop out in the middle of our exams. (Laughs) That wouldn't make sense at all. But here, there was a more sophisticated, philosophical logic that intervened. And there's sometimes the things that you have to do and you know you have to do 'em, and you cannot explain them. You just know. There is no argument about it. There's no both sides.
There's one thing that you know that you have to do regardless of what others do. You know what you have to do because you have a conscience, and it's not someone else's conscience, it's your conscience that you have to live with and you have to make sure that once you make that step that you were gonna take some leadership in making change then there was nothin' more important than that, even death itself. The awareness that death was impending would not make a difference. In fact, we made out our wills. We wrote out our wills before we left for the Freedom Rides. Who will get our Sunday go-to-meeting shoes, and our suits and our books and other things. We wanted to make sure that they would go to the people that we wanted them to go to and someone who cared, you know, about them, and will value them. So, our expectations was that, um, there was a great
possibility that we would not return for whatever reasons. [Interviewer]: Mmhmm, I want you to, to talk about the, uh, launching that launching that second, that second wave. So when did you launch the second why and when did you launch the second wave of riders? It doesn't have to be a long answer Just, you know, what happened that, that, that, made you decide to launch a second wave? [Bernard]: We launched a second wave of the group from Nashville when we got news that the first group had been arrested. But, the charge was, uh, um, not a traditional charge. It was for protective custody. In other words, they arrested them to protect them from the mob. [Interviewer]: Mmhmm, let me ask you that again, you know, we're gonna have somebody, you know, Catherine or one of those people who actually were arrested. They'll tell So, right before you are on the screen, let's say she says, "We got arrested by Bull Connor, we got thrown in jail," what did you decide to do, that
you hear that they're arrested, you know what I'm saying, I need for you to say, you know, "When we heard that they were arrested, we decided then to launch the second group," so ta- ta- tell me a little bit about that. [Bernard]: Once we heard they were arrested, we launched a second wave. [Interviewer]: A little more than that (laughs) I need for you to be in that second wave too. [Bernard]: Uh, we launched the second wave when we learned that the first group had been arrested by Bull Connor, because we wanted to make sure that we continued the Freedom Rides. And, even though they were in jail we were gonna continue and go from Birmingham on to Montgomery, that was part of the strategy, stoppin' through these places. So, we, uh, it was, uh, very organized. And, the strategy was very clear. So when we go on those
buses we knew that we were gonna be headed to Montgomery so we want to make sure we got to Birmingham. And, we decided that we would take our group and the second wave and divide it into two groups and rather than take the buses where we figured they were looking for us on the buses, we wanted to make it to Birmingham, so we went by car and we went by train to Birmingham and rendezvous there. [Interviewer]: Beautiful. Sorry to make that so complicated. [Bernard]: No, I understand the question. [Interviewer]: Thank you. I want you to tell me, um, um, what, okay let's let's stop for a second, yes - Well you got this massive protection and, and, and, uh and, and you reached the Montgomery city limits, what happened? [Bernard]: Well, we had all this protection from the state government and helicopters and everything else. Once we got to the city limits of Montgomery,
Alabama, this was a Saturday. Number one, the streets were quiet. There was no movement. They were empty. Then, all of our protection pulled back and there was a lone, uh, policeman on a motorcycle that led the bus to the bus station. And, once we got to the bus station, the driver and the supervisor and all those people got off the bus. In fact, I remember having a discussion where, uh, the, they were giving orders and telling people to sit down once we got there. In fact, I was told to sit down because I was standing up and giving direction to the Freedom Riders on the bus. And I said, uh, "All of you get a partner, maybe the person sitting next to you and you gonna be responsible for that person. So whatever you do, stay with that person.
So that somebody would know what happened to them. And I was told to sit down and my response was by the law enforcement there, I said, "You're in charge of the troopers, I'm in charge of the Freedom Riders." And I was a little fellow weighing only about 126 pounds. But it doesn't make any difference, I was clear about what my role was. We decided, and that's why we were still on the buses at that point when the others got off. Like the bus driver knows, they pulled up pulled out. And we noticed that no sooner than we started to get off the bus, a mob came out of the bus station. And, this mob went straight to the reporters and the media. The media had rented a bus and had left Birmingham at the same time we left and they rode ahead of us so they could be there to see us, you
know, disembark. So, they were already there with cameras and they were there with a, you know, uh, movie cameras as well, and, you know, the print media. And, the mob came out and went straight to reporters and started beating them and kicking them and throwing their cameras down, smashing them on the ground. I remember there were two live reporters from Life magazine and one was kind of tall, you know, and he'd been a former football player, they said. And, then there was a shorter one who had a camera around his neck and, uh, when he uh, started [Interviewer and crew]: Stop, cut. When you get there... [Interviewer]: I want you to tell me that, does the bus driver, you know the bus driver takes off and the mob starts, comes out and starts beating these people up, like, you know, from there. Okay? So, the bus pulls in, what happened? [Bernard]: When the bus pulled in, the bus driver,
the supervisor, and the protection, you know, their law enforcement all got off the bus. And, we were only left there. So, I gave instructions that we should, uh, partner up. Each person should get a partner, stay with that partner, maybe a seat-mate, uh, no matter what happens, somebody had to know what happened to that other person. [Interviewer]: Why? Why did you do that? I mean, [Bernard]: Because... [Interviewer]: You had protection, then why? [Bernard]: By this time we were aware that we were in a strange situation. We did not know what was going to happen. Our so called protection uh, had disappeared. So, there was no um, expectation that we could rely upon anyone providing security for us. So, we had to go it alone. Everything was un- uh, we could not anticipate anything.
First thing we noticed is that the rides that should've been at the bus station to pick us up because the pattern and the strategy was when the original Freedom Rides would go to a city, they would be hosted first and they would have a meeting and then they would attempt to desegregate the facilities as they leave the city the next day. But, there was always the overnight and the mass meeting that was planned for that night in advance, uh, was for the purpose of giving a boost to the local movement because there had been a movement in Birmingham, you know, earlier. And, um, so you know, those people would have been able to, uh, have a chance to rally, show their support, have press conference and then they would host us and we would be on the next day from one city to another. We had information because we had a person who was on the original Freedom Ride, John Lewis. Okay? So, um, what we're hearin' now at the bus station as we get off the bus, we look
and there's a mob coming out of the bus station. They went straight to the reporters and start beating them and clobbering them and attacking them, yellin' and screamin' like they were wild. And uh, it was, uh, women as well, you know. I had never quite seen anything like this before. There was an organized group. So, they came, uh, towards us and there was an interesting thing that happened (laughs). I was always concerned about someone surviving to be able to tell what happened because we didn't know what our fate was going to be. And I tried...I said...There was one cab driver, one black cab driver and he was trembling. And I said, "Okay, all of the women, get in the cab," and uh, they did attempt to get in the cab. But no sooner than the white women got in the cab, the black cab driver jumped out.
And I said, "Listen, uh, get back in that cab." And I tried to be as directive as possible, but it didn't work. Everything was out of control because, um, I said "Okay, he said he couldn't drive them," and he's referring to the white women I said, "Well, can you take them, the black ones?" And he said, "Well, yes." Here we are in a mob situation, a impending situation where they're gonna attack us because we know they were putting that in the eyes of the cameras, you know, only for the purpose of coming after us and we having this interesting dialogue, you might say in the midst of all this. And, so I said, "Well," the, "okay," the, "the negroes," okay, "girls," or whatever, you know, "Get in the cab! Take them!" And, he jumps in the cab and he was gonna do that. There should have been other transportation there, we found out later that they had blocked all the trasfu- traffic around the place, two blocks, and the
people can get through. They told us that later. But, we didn't know what happened to them at that point. And, Catherine Burks, at that time Catherine Brooks, got out of the cab, put her hands on her hip, and said, "Do you think we're gonna take off in this cab and leave y'all here?...No." I said, "Look, Catherine, get in that cab, okay, and get out of here, someone has to live to tell the story." And she said, (laughing) "Well, it won't be us." So we've known each other, couple of few years, in fact, uh, she married one of my best friends. But, uh she was very calm, very cool, and very determined. She did not show any fear and she would rather stay there with us, rather than take the opportunity to avoid the violence and possibly even death 'cause
we was, no way for us to know what was going to happen to us. And um, so, I said, "Okay," I had exhausted all my diplomacy and dictatorship so it didn't work. So, I said, "Well, let's all gather, hold hands, and sing 'We Shall Overcome.'" So we gathered in a group and we locked arms and the mob came and unlocked us and started beatin' us and swingin' at us from one place to another. [Interviewer]: Mmhmm, okay, let's keep rolling here. One of the things that always startles me about this is that, is that black cab driver and being so scared, and won't even, can't, and we can cut I guess, it says something about, he couldn't even take white girls in his cab at all, right? [Bernard]: No [Interviewer]: Okay, did we just, give me some of that. So, talk, tell me a little bit about that this cab driver again. Wh-Wh-Why couldn't he just take the white girls? [Bernard]: The cab driver followed policies that were set down, were in fact laws, where
black cab drivers could only take black people. One of the greatest fears was his being caught taking a white woman, which was completely beyond the pale. Maybe, if he had taken the black girls who were part of the Freedom Rides, he would've been beaten. Cab would have been stopped and he would've beaten for rescuing these people. There's no question in his mind, that if he had white girls in his cab, he would be killed. In his mind. So, he was not afraid to be attacked. It was just certain that he would be killed, if he had these white girls. [Interviewer]: Mmk, cut. Yes. I mean what made you think that they were organized?
[Bernard]: One reasons why I think the mob was organized is because they had gathered in, uh, Birmingham before. So, they had plenty of time to get themselves together and to mobilize and bring their forces. I'd already seen the Imperial Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan and so these people had different divisions. Besides, a lot of them drove past us in cars. So, some of those same people that we saw in Montgomery had come from Birmingham and other places as well. When they had stormed out of those, uh, swinging doors at the bus station in Montgomery, this mob went straight towards the reporters. And it wasn't like they split up and some came to the reporters and some came after us. No. They wanted to complete the job by running off all the com- reporters and beatin' them up and chasin' 'em off and that sort of thing,
discourage them from being around, 'cause they wanted to knock out the eyes of the cameras. And I remember one, two Life reporters, uh, extra?, uh, staff people, and one had a camera around his neck, and they were going after him, the mob. And this tall one, who we learned later was a former football player, grabbed the camera, uh, uh, by the, uh, strap, pulled it over the head of the shorter guy who wasn't able to run as fast and took off. And I mean, we saw him run. And, he ran like he was an athlete, star-athlete. They grabbed the short guy and beat him up, knocked him in the face and pushing him down on the pavement and kicked and beat him. But, they saved the film from that Freedom Rides. Then, while we were locked arms, singing, "We Shall Overcome," they turned towards us. And, we never knew what was going to happen to us. But, we gave the
word that no matter what happened, if you can find your way to the church, First Baptist Church, maybe somebody in the neighborhood could tell you where it was, we didn't know, most of us. And, uh, those the last words we had with those freedom riders as a group. [Interviewer]: Mmhmm, okay, so you guys, you now get kind of spread out? Talk about what you saw, what you heard, what happened to you? [Bernard]: Well I was standing next to John Lewis when they clobbered him on the head with a coke-cola crate, a wooden crate with metal, um bindings on the corners of the crate. And, that's what he was hit with, he didn't know, but I was there. I saw it. All he knew is he'd hit. And then, I saw them grab, uh, William Barbee and throw him down, uh, to the pavement. He was a student at the American Baptist College, think he was a freshman, put, uh, Brogan shoe on his, uh, neck and forced a lead pipe down his ear.
I saw them take, um, an older man, who was not a part of our group at all, but was walkin' on a walkin' cane and they went over and grabbed him, his cane, and broke the cane over his head. I was backing up because they were coming towards me and, uh, Freddy Leonard who was a student from Nashville as well, on the Freedom Rides, and we were backing up to this rail. On the other side of this rail was a deep drop where cars were parked, um, in the parking area. And, the question was whether or not I was going to allow them to push me backwards over this rail or whether I was gonna jump. They already tried to kick me in lower places on my body and I went down and they managed to crack two of my ribs with the Brogan shoes. So, I was watching Jim Zwerg when they were knocking him over the rail of one of the bus stops there, where they would come
in and they would pick him up, stand him up, and knock him over the rail again, pick him up, knock him down and he was picking the loose teeth out of his mouth where they had broken his teeth and that sort of thing. And it was just, uh, pandemonium. So, uh, instead of being pushed or shoved backwards over that rail, I turned around and jumped over and two other fellows, uh, Leonard, Freddy Leonard was one of them, 'cause we went over. We jumped over that rail, down that, uh, deep drop and we managed to get our way over to the, uh, back of the post office and that was federal property. So, we figured if we got on federal property, they wouldn't come after us and they didn't. [Interviewer]: Mmhmm, okay, cut. (coughing) I'm curious on what happened after you get there so, so, you get over the rail, you kind of escape, then what, how'd you get to the church? [Bernard]: We walked. [Interviewer]: Mmhmm [Bernard]: We asked people, "Where was First Baptist Church?"
and we continued to walk until we found the church. [Interviewer]: Mmhmm, and then what happened at the church? [Bernard]: Well, we stayed there, and um, until that evening, the mass meeting started and we gathered together, those of us who were left. Others were at the hospital. In fact, William Barbee and uh, Jim Zwerg, they, they could not, uh, they were immobile. They had bandages all over and that sort of thing and uh, I remember, um, when I went to visit William Barbee, and um he always had a phrase that he would use in referring to a fella, he would say, "Good brother, good brah-, good brother." And, um when I finished the visit and I was about to leave, he said, uh, "Good brother, when are we going to, um, Jackson?" He was talking about
Jackson, Mississippi. I knew he wasn't going to be able to go. But, that was one of the things that motivated me, okay, you know what happens come hell or high water, okay, even if the creek did rise, we were going to Jackson, at least I was. He couldn't go. But, he was trying to go, even though he was hospitalized with bandages all over him, where they'd try to put out his ear drums, you know. He never did recover from that. When we got back to the church, those of us who were still gathered and were not hospitalized or, we went into the, uh, choir room. The choir room was where the robes were kept. We put on choir robes. And we went into the choir stand and we served as the choir. We've been singing
songs together long time so we had pretty good harmony, that kinda thing. In the meantime, the policemen from Birmingham was going through the audience of the people who were gathered in the church in the pews, uh, with photographs of us lookin' uh tried to identify us and we were watching them in the choir stand. And they were lookin' that they didn't recognize that we were, okay, the Freedom Riders who they were looking for. [Interviewer]: Why? [Bernard]: 'Cause we had choir robes. [Interviewer]: Why were they looking for you? [Bernard]: They had warrants for all of our arrests 'cause we had disturbed the peace, so. [Interviewer]: Mmhmm. Uh, talk about that night, when did you realize that there was, that there was well we heard the noise outside of the church and uh, those of us who had gathered inside the church, you know, was going on with the mating and we realize that during those of disturbance out there
and they threw, uh, tear gas bombs, through the stained glass windows. This was a howlin' mob. And, they turned over cars and burned them. And, they were just runnin' rampant, just really wild. And, we were trapped in there. Now, this time, we were aware that Martin Luther King was talking to the President and the Attorney General about getting some kind of federal protection for the people. The other interesting thing that happened, which I will never (laughs) get out of my mind, was that Martin Luther King mounted the pulpit, at this First Baptist Church, and he said um, "I have a very special mission to carry out and I need a few men who are sure about their non violence, I don't want anybody who has any doubts." And, course everybody then jump up and run
towards, you know, him. A few of them managed manage to walk towards him. So, the staff people, and I think, he got the impression that he's selected which ones should stay and maybe which ones should go with him. and then there were others who were not necessarily part of the staff. He walked out of that door, of the church, of the front door of the church, into that mob. I learned later, he had found out that there were some cab drivers, black cab drivers that were organizing and getting weapons, and were planning to come and rescue the people in the church. And he went out that door to persuade them. And they– I did not expect to see Martin Luther King or any of those members who went with him again. I didn’t know what their mission was, but I knew the mob was out there. How he got through that mob and then walked all the way back through the mob to the church, I don’t know. I have no
idea. And, um, that was tantamount to to some kind of miracle. And I suspect it was because they all had on black suits and they lined up like they were militia or something, and walked like they were in cadence, and that was something that was not something they were used to seeing, the mob, you know? My only explanation was, it was unusual behavior that sort of stunned them. [Interviewer]: One of the things that, that, that, I was wondering, is what, is, is, now what you, you guys were thinking? You guys must of been, you know, the Freedom Riders must of been at least, joking, or something about this. You know? You know, you're not in Kansas anymore. You're not in Nashville anymore. I mean, you know what I'm saying? I mean, to me, it's like, this is terror, I mean, these guys, first meet out a crazy mob like you've never seen meets with the bus station, you know, now, you know, you escape, you go to church and that it's
- American Experience
- Freedom Riders
- Raw Footage
- Interview with Bernard Lafayette, Jr. , 2 of 3
- Contributing Organization
- WGBH (Boston, Massachusetts)
- AAPB ID
- 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
- (c) 2011-2017 WGBH Educational Foundation
- Media type
- Moving Image
Release Agent: WGBH Educational Foundation
- AAPB Contributor Holdings
Identifier: barcode357614_Lafayette_02_SALES_ASP_h264 Amex 1280x720.mp4 (unknown)
Identifier: cpb-aacip-15-7940r9n32z.mp4 (mediainfo)
If you have a copy of this asset and would like us to add it to our catalog, please contact us.
- Chicago: “American Experience; Freedom Riders; Interview with Bernard Lafayette, Jr. , 2 of 3,” WGBH, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (GBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC, accessed September 21, 2021, http://americanarchive.org/catalog/cpb-aacip-15-7940r9n32z.
- MLA: “American Experience; Freedom Riders; Interview with Bernard Lafayette, Jr. , 2 of 3.” WGBH, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (GBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC. Web. September 21, 2021. <http://americanarchive.org/catalog/cpb-aacip-15-7940r9n32z>.
- APA: American Experience; Freedom Riders; Interview with Bernard Lafayette, Jr. , 2 of 3. Boston, MA: WGBH, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (GBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC. Retrieved from http://americanarchive.org/catalog/cpb-aacip-15-7940r9n32z