Bernard LaFayette Jr., Kathryn Lee Johnson. In Peace and Freedom: My Journey in Selma. Louisville: University Press of Kentucky, 2013. 240 pp. $35.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8131-4386-6.
Reviewed by Timothy Brown
Published on H-Socialisms (March, 2015)
Commissioned by Gary Roth
Youth and Mobilization: Creating Change, One Body at a Time
Bernard LaFayette’s In Peace and Freedom: My Journey in Selma examines how young people and their music helped shape the early civil rights movement in the United States. LaFayette also shares his personal encounters with the people, politics, and prejudices that hindered the voting rights campaigns and aspirations for full citizenship for African Americans in the rural South. This memoir was inspired by LaFayette’s desire to use the events in Selma as a focus of academic research, since they had provoked a virulent racism that far exceeded what most people imagined was possible.
Within In Peace and Freedom, LaFayette speaks about the influences that strengthened his desire to get involved in the civil rights movement. In the chapter “Preparing for Selma,” he praises the nonviolent teachings and principles of a young Dr. Martin Luther King and the examples set by direct actions such as sit-ins and freedom rides. Among his mentors, he mentions as spirited and motivating such people as Ella Baker, James Farmer, Connie Curry, and a college student and future mayor of Washington, DC, Marion Barry. LaFayette’s book highlights individuals who were instrumental in the early work of the movement and whose contributions are often overlooked in historical accounts.
Despite considerable hesitation and resistance from his superiors, LaFayette become a director within the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) at the age of twenty-two, charged with leading the Alabama Voter Registration project in Selma. In Peace and Freedom is devoted to the challenges and controversies he faced in this role. LaFayette’s account is important because it provides a deep understanding of the civil rights movement as seen through the personal perspective of adolescents and young adults at a key historical moment.
In preparing young people to become active within the movement, training required that they have an understanding of the immediate social conditions that prevailed in Selma. LaFayette was particularly focused on the source of the problems that the local black population faced. In a chapter entitled “Shackles of Fear, Handcuffs of Hopelessness,” he describes the constant fear faced by elderly blacks and the methods of resistance used by the young people. Youth in general were an essential component of the change process. Through direct action, community mobilization, commitment and passion, and unbounded enthusiasm, young people became a force of change by encouraging other young people to get involved. Within their training programs on civil disobedience, young people learned not only personal restraint, but also the power to transform “natural fear and anger into positive responses” (p. 39).
Throughout his memoir, LaFayette describes the everyday challenges faced by African Americans in Selma. The black church, already an anchor within the community, became a source of independence, support, and refuge that hosted meetings, trainings, funding efforts, and more when there was nowhere else to turn. By using the church as a cover for mobilization, many found strength in numbers and became more actively involved in organizing. Despite the fear that once stopped many from becoming active in the voter registration process, the church provided a safe haven. Within the church, many were further inspired by the songs of liberation that had deep roots in the black community. Music became “the language of the soul” which drew people together and showed the power of the collective voice (p. 48). Through their own words, LaFayette highlights major contributors such as the “Courageous Eight” and also provides personal photos of the people, places, and events that characterized the movement. Based on the experiences in Selma, voter registration gained momentum by showing supporters the rules of engagement necessary to fight the system of oppression.
As the voter registration campaign gained national attention, it provided inspiration to the various parallel movements around the country. Although there were significant strides toward change, every significant step forward was met by a small step backwards. With every person and community that became organized and educated in the rules of engagement, the system of oppression pushed back through threats of fear, incarceration, and death. Throughout each movement, there was a tone of hope, a message about changing times. In each phase, the tenacity of the young people and the inspiration of music existed as common factors.
Reading In Peace and Freedom in 2015, fifty years after the passing of the Voting Rights Act, I am inspired by LaFayette’s encounters and the momentum of the young people in defining the experiences in Selma. As an African American male, I fully understand and appreciate the importance of the work done through the voter registration movement; however, I digress from the text to provide some personal commentary framed by the modern-day civil rights movement. I ponder whether people today realize the great sacrifices made to make their lives better. LaFayette’s text is extremely relevant because of its insights into the long history of second-class treatment of African Americans. In 2015, we commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of the crossing of the Edmund Pettis Bridge--known as Bloody Sunday--and the events in Selma. However, the question remains: How far have we truly come in our advancement of equal rights?
In 2014, the killings of Michael Brown in Ferguson and Eric Garner on Staten Island sparked in many feelings of connection with the early freedom fighters who had had similarly negative interactions with the police. During the latter part of 2014, hundreds of thousands took to the streets in solidarity, protesting the continued imbalances within the American justice system. The protesters included all races of people, young and old, celebrities and citizens, united by the themes “Black Lives Matter” and “No Justice, No Peace.” These protests were mobilized by young people concerned about the relationship between African Americans and law enforcement. In Peace and Freedom: My Journey in Selma tells the intimate story of LaFayette’s experiences in Selma at a pivotal time in American history.
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Timothy Brown. Review of LaFayette Jr., Bernard; Johnson, Kathryn Lee, In Peace and Freedom: My Journey in Selma.
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