As people across the country commemorated the 57th anniversary of the March on Washington and Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr’s historic “I Have A Dream” address, the Tampa Bay area paid tribute to another civil rights leader – Congressman John Lewis, who passed away in July at age 80.
Representative Kathy Castor hosted a virtual panel discussion Friday featuring civil rights activist Dr. Bernard Lafayette and USF St. Petersburg historian and professor Dr. Ray Arsenault. The panelists talked about Lewis’s legacy prior to an online screening of the recently released film John Lewis: Good Trouble.
Lafayette, who was born and raised in Ybor City, was Lewis’s college roommate and one of his closest friends and collaborators during the civil rights movement. He participated with Lewis in the first Freedom Rides of 1961 as they fought to integrate buses and faced attacks by white mobs, including one from the Ku Klux Klan. He was also a fellow leader in the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee.
Recalling his childhood in Tampa, Lafayette remembered thinking that segregation wasn’t fair or right, and when he met Lewis at college in Nashville at the American Baptist Theological Seminary, he found someone who shared his perspective.
“He had similar experiences as I did,” Lafayette said. “He always questioned segregation and did not accept it.”
Through Lewis, Lafayette began attending nonviolence workshops led by James Lawson, an activist who served as a mentor for the SNCC. In December of 1960, the two men embarked on a journey that would become a precursor for the Freedom Rides as they took front seats on a bus from Nashville to Lewis’s home state of Alabama.
“John sat in the front seat and I sat behind the driver,” Lafayette recalled. “The driver got upset and told us to move and to get off the bus. He didn’t know who he was talking to.”
The bus driver eventually backed down and they continued the ride to Alabama. It was fraught with nerves as neither man knew what would happen at each stop. Finally, the bus reached Troy, Ala. and Lewis got off into the “pitch black” of night.
“I was wondering if I was ever going to see him again,” Lafayette said.
His fears turned out to be unfounded and the two men would soon join forces to lead Freedom Rides across the south to challenge segregation in the public transportation system. Lafayette credits Lewis with always maintaining a calm, nonviolent presence even when the other side did not.
“He knew how to show courage in the face of severe violence,” Lafayette said. “He showed no fear.”
Arsenault agreed that Lewis’s nonviolent tactics were key to the success of the Freedom Riders. In May 1961, Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy petitioned the Interstate Commerce Commission to ban segregation in interstate bus travel, according to PBS. The order, which went into effect in November of that year, led to the removal of Jim Crow signs from stations, waiting rooms, water fountains and restrooms in bus terminals.
“They took a protest and turned it into a movement,” he said of the Freedom Riders, noting that not one of the 436 riders ever violated the movement’s pledge of nonviolence.
Arsenault recalled meeting Lewis and being struck that despite his small stature, his strength of character was immense.
“He filled the room,” Arsenault said. “I’d heard him use the terms ‘beloved community’ and ‘reconciliation’ and ‘forgiveness,’ but he was the personification of them.”
Had it not been for Lewis and Lafayette, Arsenault said, things could be worse now in terms of issues of racial inequality.
As far as the current protests against police violence, Lafayette said he’s excited to see so many young people taking initiatives, similar to what he saw when he and Lewis were fighting for civil rights in the 1960s. He urged them not to quit.
“Your opponents are waiting for you to give up,” he said. “They do things to make you feel like you’re not going to achieve what you’re trying to do. If you buy into that, they’ve succeeded. You have to keep moving.”