We just got on and sat in the front row. The bus driver insisted that we move to the back. But we didn’t move.
By Bernard Lafayette Jr.
Dr. Lafayette is a longtime civil rights leader and activist.
July 18, 2020 The New York Times
John Lewis, the civil rights icon, died on Friday. He had announced in December that he had Stage 4 pancreatic cancer.
Bernard Lafayette, another leader in the civil rights movement, first met John Lewis at the American Baptist College in Nashville, Tenn. Along with others in the Nashville Student Movement, they put their lives at risk again and again, in nonviolent protests in Nashville, and as Freedom Riders, the Black and white passengers who rode together on buses through the South to challenge segregated public transportation.
In an interview with Lora Kelley, Mr. Lafayette reflected on their friendship. This piece has been edited and condensed for clarity.
I first met John Lewis in 1958. We were roommates at the American Baptist College in Nashville.
We shared a small room with two beds, two wardrobes and a bathroom down the hall. At night in the dormitory, we used to stay up and talk about our experiences growing up in the South. We both came from communities where segregation was the norm, and both of us resented the idea of having to be victims of segregation.
We thought about how things could be different. And we both developed a commitment at a young age for civil rights and social change.
John Lewis has been a brother to me ever since. I remember my mother used to send me two suits every Mother’s Day. She was so funny — I don’t know any son who ever got a Mother’s Day present. But I would always give one suit to John because we used to wear the same size. We always shared what we had.
At school, John was going to these workshops on nonviolent protests with students from various colleges in Nashville. He said, you need to come to these meetings; this is what we talk about all the time.
I said, I don’t have time for that. Workshops? I’m already working as much as I can.
But he did not give up. He just continued to badger me. I went, just to stop him from having to talk about it. And that’s how I got involved — John insisted that I get involved.
The civil rights leader James Lawson led the workshops. They focused on lunch counters. We did role plays and simulations of lunch counter sit-ins. They taught us to always have backups. So that training made a big difference in terms of developing leadership out of Nashville.
During the 1960 Christmas vacation holiday, John and I decided on our own to desegregate a Greyhound bus in Nashville. That was before the Freedom Rides.
The Greyhound bus station had just one ticket counter. They used to have separate ticket counters, separate lunch counters, separate waiting rooms, separate restrooms. But now this bus station was completely desegregated. So we got our tickets at what used to be the white-only ticket counter.
And we just got on the bus. I sat behind the driver in the first seat. John sat across from me in the front row. The bus driver insisted that we move to the back, but we didn’t.
The driver pulled back into the bus station and tried to get support. But he returned with no results. So, he had to drive us.
We drove from Nashville on down to Troy, Ala. That’s where John got off the bus. It was night. The bus stop was actually a gas station; it was dark; it was closed. And the bus driver had already shown his anger toward us.
John would be by himself, waiting for his ride. When we said goodbye; I remember thinking it could be fatal for him.
And then I suddenly realized — I didn’t know what would happen to me!
I continued on the bus without him. It worked out fine. I went on to Tampa, Fla. That was the first time we integrated the buses. All the way down, sitting in the front row.
It was just a natural thing for us to want to join the Freedom Rides when they started in May 1961. John got his application accepted. But my application required parental permission because I wasn’t going to be 21 until July. My father said no, I’m not signing your death warrant. So I didn’t go.
But we took John to the bus station. The bus had left already, but we caught up with the bus, and he got on. He was able to get on the original ride. The bus was burned in Anniston, Ala., and people got beaten up in Birmingham.
Because of the violence, they halted the Freedom Rides. But those of us who were from Nashville decided that we would continue. Our position was that we would not allow violence to stop a nonviolent movement. And besides, we had been trained as leaders. I led a second group and we left out of Birmingham. John and I led our groups together to Montgomery, Ala.
I remember John Lewis had no reservations about going down and sitting in and knowing that we could be injured. You could be clobbered. I was there on the bus platform in Montgomery, Ala., when they hit him over the head with a Coca-Cola crate and smashed his head.
Going to jail was a regular thing for him. In those days, you didn’t want to have a jail record. People didn’t know about civil disobedience and the philosophy of nonviolence. All they knew is that you went to jail. But John was arrested over 40-some times. If they were arresting people, you could be sure that John would not be left out.
People admired and respected John. And they listened to him. He was the president of the class in college, and then he was president of the student body as a senior. He was also elected as the national chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. I did not anticipate that he would run for office, but he recognized that if you want to change power, you had to be in power.
John Lewis is probably the most courageous civil rights activist I know. While he did make speeches, what was most powerful was his presence. He would show up. He knew his voice by himself couldn’t make a difference. So he had to win others over.
He would be present and give people hope, particularly when things were very dim and seemed impossible. He assured people that if you continue in a movement, you had a greater possibility of bringing about change.
Dr. Bernard Lafayette Jr. is a longtime civil rights leader and activist.