January 25, 2008

Civil Rights icons reflect on lessons of history

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Bernard LaFayette Jr., Ed.D., left, and John Seigenthaler spoke at Vanderbilt this week. (photo by Neil Brake)

Civil Rights icons reflect on lessons of history

At the lecture, Susanne Brinkley was presented with the first Martin Luther King Jr. Award. (photo by Neil Brake)

At the lecture, Susanne Brinkley was presented with the first Martin Luther King Jr. Award. (photo by Neil Brake)

Two living legends of the Civil Rights movement — one black, one white — sat together in front of an overflow crowd in Light Hall Monday and swapped inspiring memories of freedom rides, lunch counter sit-ins and Martin Luther King Jr.

Bernard LaFayette Jr., Ed.D., and John Seigenthaler are old friends who played key roles in the 1961 Freedom Rides. The Schools of Medicine and Nursing sponsored their dialogue on “What the Lessons of the Past Can Tell Us About the Present and Future” as part of the annual Martin Luther King Jr. Commemorative Series.

LaFayette is a former Freedom Rider and is now Distinguished Scholar in Residence and director of the University of Rhode Island's Center for Nonviolence and Peace Studies.

Seigenthaler is former editor, publisher and CEO of the Tennessean and founder of the Freedom Forum First Amendment Center at Vanderbilt. In 1961 Seigenthaler served as assistant to U.S. Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy.

A leader of Nashville's civil rights movement, LaFayette recalled how the city was “ripped apart” in 1960 when he and other students staged sit-ins at local lunch counters. Some students were beaten and LaFayette feared for his safety. “I had fears of not living long enough to play my part,” he said. “But my passion for changing segregation dwarfed the fear.”

The Nashville students who led the sit-ins helped paved the way for the Freedom Riders, LaFayette said. “They changed the culture by defying segregation laws.”

In 1961 the Freedom Riders boarded buses in Washington, D.C., and headed south to test a new law that declared segregation illegal on public transportation. Throughout the South the riders were arrested for unlawful assembly and violating Jim Crow laws. After one of the buses was firebombed in Alabama, Lafayette and the Nashville students decided to join the entourage.

“I got a call from Robert Kennedy,” Seigenthaler said. “He asked me to go to Birmingham and talk the students out of going.”

Seigenthaler arranged for the Freedom Riders' safe passage through the state, but the highway patrol in Montgomery refused to comply. An angry mob attacked the buses and beat the riders and Seigenthaler, who was left unconscious in the street.

“That pricked the conscience of the whole country,” Seigenthaler said. “People poured into the movement. The Freedom Rides changed the whole system of desegregation in the South.”

Before LaFayette and Seigenthaler spoke, the first Martin Luther King Jr. award was presented to Susanne Brinkley, director of Medical Education for the Meharry-Vanderbilt Alliance.

The Martin Luther King Jr. award will be given each year to a faculty or staff member who emulates the principles of King through his or her work at Vanderbilt.