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LaFayette shares message of nonviolence
with CCRI audience
Feb. 25, 2014
CCRI students, faculty and staff had the opportunity to hear a different kind of history lesson when they gathered to listen to celebrated civil rights activist Dr. Bernard LaFayette Jr. on Monday, Feb. 24, in the auditorium at the Flanagan Campus in Lincoln.
LaFayette spoke to a full house about his experiences on the front line of the civil rights movement, giving the audience an insight into his work as a Freedom Rider, as the national coordinator of the Poor People’s Campaign, and as the co-founder of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, among other monumental efforts.
He also spoke at length about one of his close colleagues, Martin Luther King Jr., offering humorous anecdotes about the late King alongside inspirational moments from his teachings. “He was a pool shark,” LaFayette remembered, chuckling, how King approached his negotiations on common ground – even if that ground was a smoky pool hall.
LaFayette is known primarily in Rhode Island as one of the founders of the University of Rhode Island’s Center for Nonviolence and Peace Studies. Though he first put his own college education on hiatus to join the Nashville Student Movement to protest segregated lunch-counters – eventually being arrested for the first of 27 times for this and other causes – LaFayette spoke of the academic environment as the “perfect place” to talk about the issue of change through nonviolence.
“From my own experiences, and having had the opportunity to learn from Martin Luther King Jr., we’re in the right place here. Our academic studies must be related to practical problems, and our study has to be focused on practical solutions. When we talk about science, most of you think about technical science – but social science is also a science,” he said.
He spoke about the importance of education, particularly reaching across boundaries and comfort zones to find inspiration in unlikely places. When he was studying for his doctorate in education at Harvard University, for example, LaFayette said he learned much about the concept of reconciliation in the nonviolence movement via courses on Japanese management techniques.
It’s this kind of valuable cross-pollination that underscores the need to function as a community, just as it underscores the fact that problems exist on a systemic, connected level, and must be addressed as such. “We’re not born alone, we don’t live alone, and we’re not going to die alone, either,” he said.
This thread of togetherness – and of recognizing that “differences exist, but differences don’t matter” – ran through the entirety of LaFayette’s lecture as he traced the path of the nonviolence movement. He spoke of King’s improbable attraction to Gandhi, noting with characteristic humor that this was further evidence that King didn’t embrace the norm.
“A Baptist preacher who embraced Gandhi? People didn’t know who Gandhi was. But he saw the relationship between Gandhi and social movements and nonviolence. He embraced and appreciated people from other cultures and philosophies,” LaFayette said.
“It’s wrong to say he had a dream,” said LaFayette of King. “He has a dream.”
LaFayette’s own career as a practicant and advocate of nonviolence had followed a similar path to King’s. As Richard Tarlaian, social sciences instructor and Nonviolence Club adviser, pointed out in his introduction to the lecture, “Although Dr. King has died, the dream hasn’t. It’s been carried on by people like Dr. LaFayette.”
It was the hope of continuing that dream that influenced Tarlaian, who first worked with LaFayette when the latter was training the former in nonviolence studies while Tarlaian was working on the Providence Police force, the first group of people LaFayette trained in the state. And it was the hope of continuing that dream that brought LaFayette to campus, where he attended classes in addition to the lecture.
Moramya Ortiz, a student studying social work and a member of the Nonviolence Club in Lincoln, said she was inspired to join the club to learn more about the nonviolence movement after her cousins were violently murdered in Puerto Rico. “There’s more to nonviolence studies than just not fighting,” she said. “It’s about learning how to handle your internal violence, too.”
After the lecture, Ortiz said that “it was amazing” to hear LaFayette speak, noting that the lecture “opened her eyes to the value of overcoming differences in a respectful way.” Indeed, much of LaFayette’s talk centered around the practical advice that differences are inevitable, but should not be viewed as insurmountable – nor should they be ignored. Rather, they should be used as opportunities for leverage through learning.
URI freshman Jose Terrazo, who learned about the lecture through his African-American history class, echoed Ortiz’s statements. “I enjoyed it and learned a lot. It’s always good to learn about history,” said Terrazo, who was one of many students waiting to talk to LaFayette after the presentation, and to get his signature on copies of his new book, “In Peace and Freedom: My Journey in Selma.”
The Office of Student Life, Flanagan Student Government and Nonviolence Club sponsored the event.