Dr. Bernard Lafayette Jr. – the 2012 National Freedom Award winner – knows that Memphis is special, set apart by some of the contributions made here to the civil rights movement.
"Many people look at Memphis in sort of a morbid way because Martin Luther King was taken away from us on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel, but it could have been anywhere," said Dr. Lafayette, who will be in Memphis on Oct. 16 for the annual Freedom Award event hosted by the National Civil Rights Museum.
"We have to continue to struggle against violence because it's not going to just go away. We have to start with the young children. We have the resources to do it and Memphis can help lead the way because of the strength and experiences that Memphis has had," Dr. Lafayette said during an exclusive interview with The New Tri-State Defender on Wednesday morning (Oct. 3).
"Some great leaders have come out of Memphis, and I think this is one of the things you have to your advantage," said Lafayette, national president and chairman of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC).
In an 90-minute interview, he talked in length about leadership and the lack thereof; the national elections; the voter registration and voter ID debacle; his close connections with civil right icons, such as Alabama Congressman John Lewis and the Reverends C.T. Vivian and James Lawson; Dr. King; providing national and international nonviolence training; and so much more.
"I'm still in the movement. I have not retired. I'm still working very hard every day," said Lafayette, jokingly adding that, "I live on Delta Airlines."
Looking at his national and international itinerary, this could be seen as true.
A celebrated chief lieutenant of Dr. King and the civil rights movement, Lafayette is currently a Distinguished-Senior-Scholar-in-Residence at Emory University's Candor School of Theology.
"At Emory, I teach a graduate level course on the life and work of Martin Luther King, and in the spring, I teach a course on lessons that we've learned in the movement. It analyzes the different campaigns, and we go into the organizational structure and the strategy of what we learned in the movement," said Lafayette.
"Because some people really don't know what happened. They just thought that it was only a march that just really made the difference."
Dr. Lafayette also is Director of the Center for Nonviolence and Peace Studies at the University of Rhode Island, where he teaches a two-week intensive certification course in nonviolence principles.
Expanding on his work, Lafayette said, "This is what I do: I work very closely with SCLC (the Southern Christian Leadership Conference). We applied the same nonviolence approach, which is to deal with the outside as well as the inside operation. You know all the problems it (SCLC) had, but we came out of that. And we're at the point now where we're moving forward and we're globalizing nonviolence, under this umbrella."
In November, SCLC will have its thousandth chapter and it will be the first in South Africa, he said. "Isn't that something?"
Every question practically yielded a mini rhetorical thesis on any subject relative to the movement, nonviolence and peace. His expanse of knowledge is monumental. His candid, detailed, descriptive and narrative style is akin to sitting at the feet of a Griot with immeasurable oral history. He was personally on the frontlines of the freedom rides and the Alabama marches in Montgomery and Selma. A founding member of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), he was appointed by Dr. King as the National Program Administrator for SCLC.
Dr. Lafayette also is no neophyte when it comes to receiving honors for his commitment to advancing the causes of nonviolence and peace. In May, he received the degree of Doctor of Humane Letters at Mount Holyoke College, "For all you have done, and for the courage and grace with which you have done it, to help this nation seek equality without violence."
Asked what it meant to be this year's National Freedom Award recipient, following in the footsteps of some of his former mentors and now colleagues of the movement, Lafayette said, "I am elated and I'm so excited about being a recipient of this award. I want to continue to stand for what that award stands for, in our fight for freedom."
Dr. Lafayette said he sees himself representing large numbers of people who made even greater sacrifices.
"I'm receiving it on behalf of some people who followed the same philosophies, the same movement; even the people whose names we don't know; but who were just part of the movement. So, I'm honored to be part of that. That's the best honor for me. It is to represent these people."
While he doesn't do what he does to receive honors, Dr. Lafayette said he deeply appreciated the recognition and the respect that comes with that.
He envisions that his future will be just as busy as his present. His next project is to establish a network of universities around the world and have them part of a global consortium. He sees the colleges and universities offering courses in nonviolence and peace studies and collaborating through distance learning to offer courses to students around the world.
"Those students who would take these courses in a prescribed curriculum would receive what I call a Gold Certification in Peace and Nonviolence," he said.
"Every profession needs to have nonviolence training because whenever you interact with other human beings, you're subject to have a conflict," he said.
"Violence is what I call the language of the inarticulate. Rather than sitting down talking about their problems and work them through, instead they end up throwing things at each other, through bullets, guns and tanks and stuff. And this a way to teach people how to relate to each other without destroying and killing each other."
Nonviolence can work on any level, said Dr. Lafayette.
" It can work on the bullying level; in the work place. It can work in schools and universities."