This year’s Jacob Needle Lecture in History featured original Freedom Rider and core civil rights leader Dr. Bernard Lafayette Jr.
Dr. Lafayette’s Feb. 23 presentation, titled “Your Life: A Celebration of Peace & Social Justice Yesterday and Today,” centered on his personal experiences fighting for racial equality and justice in the deep south in the 1960’s, as well as his continuing efforts to educate and inspire students of today.
Lafayette began with his personal account of growing up in Tampa, FL and his early inspiration to create positive change in society. While at the American Baptist College, Lafayette was introduced to the civil rights movement, which lead to his involvement in the sit-ins, freedom rides and other grassroots civil rights actions of the early 1960’s.
“You don’t learn by succeeding at everything,” said Lafayette, recalling the countless trials and errors he experienced as a young activist, and encouraging those in the audiences to approach their own goals the same way.
Upon entering the civil rights movement, Lafayette advocated for non-violent peace activism. He co-founded the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee in 1960 and became the New York coordinator to end the war in Vietnam in 1967. Even while advocating for non-violence, Lafayette was jailed 27 times in his lifetime.
“The best advocates for non-violence are the ones that know violence,” said Lafayette.
Lafayette also recalled his time working alongside Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., whose last words to him were, “Bernard, the next thing we are going to do is institutionalize and rationalize nonviolence.” Only five hours later King was shot. Lafayette, although devastated, knew he had to continue on because “there was still work to do.” He proceeded to Washington to mount the Poor People’s Campaign.
“It was a hit on Martin Luther King, but it was a miss for the movement,” Lafayette says about King’s death. He goes on to explain how King’s legacy lived on well after his death, even referring to Brookdale’s own MLK Lounge.
“King had already given his life to a movement he was willing to die for and you can’t kill a man that has already given his life away,” Lafayette said.
Lafayette also spoke about his 2013 book “In Peace and Freedom: My Journey in Selma,” which covers his time as a civil rights activist and his harrowing experiences in Selma, AL. The book, he said, in not a memoir but a”lesson plan for change.” Copies were available to purchase at the event, and Lafayette was available after his lecture to personally sign copies.
Lafayette concluded his speech with advice for change for present day issues which included creating youth legislatures and staying educated on pressing topics. He believes that positive non-violent actions should start with younger generations to keep the movement progressing.
“You got a good thing going here. Take it to the limit,” Lafayette says mentioning Brookdale’s resources to stay educated for change.
The program, hosted by the history department and the office Student Life and Activities in the Student Life Center, was the latest annual symposium held in honor of retired history professor, Jacob Needle, and his many contributions to Brookdale Community College.
“We wanted to keep the fire he started burning,” said Brookdale history professor Jess LeVine.
For more Student Life and Activities events, check out their calendar here.
Check out more photos of the Jacob Needle Lecture in History here.
– Article by Mikaela Mazzeo, college relations intern