The Rev Dr. Bernard LaFayette is presently a distinguished senior scholar-in-residence at the Candler School of Theology at Emory University. A man with an unassuming character and disposition mixed with humility and wit, LaFayette occupies an important seat in the history of the African-American pilgrimage, most notably during the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s. A foremost authority in the world on non-violence and Kingian philosophy, LaFayette was appointed by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to be the national program administrator of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) and national coordinator of the 1968 Poor People’s Campaign, which was a watershed for the Civil Rights Movement.
LaFayette cofounded the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee in 1960 and directed the Alabama Voter Registration Project in 1962. On the 2010 celebration of the Martin Luther King Holiday, LaFayette sat down with Michigan Chronicle senior editor Bankole Thompson at the King Center in Atlanta for an in-depth conversation. Excerpts follow.
MICHIGAN CHRONICLE: With President Obama’s election and given the issues we are faced with, what does it mean to celebrate the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday?
BERNARD LAFAYETTE: The most important thing about what has happened in the recent period of time like last year is that there has been some education that on a subliminal level some basic changes have been made. Because sometimes on an observable level you see certain changes take place, like the desegregation of the lunch counters, restaurants and other public facilities. The question is attitudes, whether there is a change of heart. And I can say that what Martin Luther King was trying to accomplish was actually a change of heart because when people change their heart, they change their behavior. So while we were not quiet sure whether our country had made a change, this is evident, clear evidence that there was a change of heart. What was that change? I don’t think the change had anything to do with the fact that America had wanted to vote for a Black president.
BL: That was not the change. The change was that they were looking for a president, some leadership that could change the direction of the country because we were going down fast. And we had to get some resuscitation and get back on board economically. And inspite of the fact that Barack was a person of color, that did not eviscerate them making a decision to choose him as leader. That is the clear change that is taking place.
MC: If you look at the tea party protesters in Washington carrying signs with a racial tinge to them, has there really been a change of heart?