Though the civil rights era ended decades ago, the United States is still learning the lessons of the oppression and activism that surrounded it.
Bernard Lafayette, the national coordinator of the 1968 Poor People’s Campaign and a top aide to Martin Luther King, Jr., spoke to a crowd of about 40 students and faculty Thursday night. In his speech, Lafayette discussed the plight of African Americans in overcoming oppression during the civil rights movement and today.
Lafayette, who currently works as a senior scholar-in-residence at the Candler School of Theology at Emory University in Atlanta, said the civil rights movement was unsuccessful in its efforts to educate voters and encourage their participation in government.
“We failed,” Lafayette said. “Our mistake was not to set up in every county a citizenship education school. We’d have citizens learn how to participate.”
Lafayette encouraged University students to fix the falts of the movement by organizing youth groups so people can learn about voting rights before they’re legally allowed to cast ballots, adding that a successful revolution comes from the support of others.
“No revolution has ever been won without the sympathy or active support of the majority,” he said. “You have to occupy the conscious of the rest of the world.”
Political Science Prof. Vincent Hutchings, who participated in the lecture and question and answer session, said participation in the political system is important to the progress of the country.
“In order to maximize your influence, you ideally want to vote,” Hutchings said. “You want to exert your influence on the outside, and on the inside as well as politicians.”
In an interview after the lecture, Lafayette said the civil rights movement has experienced backlash from today’s generation.
“While we’ve made some very important changes in the movement in the past, we are finding that there is backlash with people who are trying to turn back the clock,” Lafayette said.
Lafayette pointed to a group in Selma, Ala. that is trying to erect a statue of a Confederate General and early Ku Klux Klan leader as an example of such pushback.
“Why do they want to lift up that particular kind of image of a person that was totally apathetic to the progress that we’ve made at this point?” he said.
In his lecture, Lafayette recounted the oppression African Americans underwent before and during the civil rights movement.
“Oppression is a system but it has to have maximum cooperation,” Lafayette said. “You got to have techniques of refraction. There are going to be some that try to resist oppression. Repression means that you’re going to have to put these people back in their place, and that’s where all the violence took place.”
He said that during the civil rights movement, activists responded to oppression by overpowering fear with courage.
“Courage does not mean that you have fear,” he said. “Yes we had fear, but we were fearless. Fear is there, but it’s not the barrier. It’s not the force that keeps you from action. You act in spite of the fear.”
Lafayette said in the interview that he chose to visit the University because of its history of support for civil rights. He added that he has friends and knows other activists who attended the University.
“It’s always been thought of as a place where you would find a strong interest and support base for social change,” he said.
Lafayette said he expects students to focus on the points he made during his lecture and apply it in the future.
“I have a great expectation that people are going to benefit with what I’ve shared with them and do something with it,” Lafayette said. “This activism is one of the images that the University of Michigan has.”
On Friday and Saturday, Lafayette is also scheduled to hold a civil rights training session on Kingian nonviolence activism, a philosophy advocated for by the King Center for Nonviolent Social Change, which was founded by Coretta Scott King after her husband’s assassination.
LSA senior Rocci Maxwell attended the lecture and said she agreed with Lafayette’s sentiments toward youth voter education.
“People might not vote because they’re not educated about it,” Maxwell said. “If you start at an age before 18 where you can learn the process, then people will be more likely to vote. Educating people before the process would be extremely beneficial.”