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Department of Communications/
News Bureau
22 Davis Hall, 10 Lippitt Road, Kingston, RI 0288
Phone: 401-874-2116 Fax: 401-874-7872

Media Contact: Jan Wenzel, 874-2116

URI captures its nonviolence leader’s
life story on videotape

KINGSTON, R.I. -- March 5, 2003 -- He sat at lunch counters in Nashville, Tenn. before he was 20, not only challenging the injustice of segregation, but helping to end it.

He rode Freedom Ride buses, directed voter registration in Alabama, and worked for housing rights in Chicago with Martin Luther King Jr. who subsequently appointed him national program director for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and the coordinator of the 1968 Poor People’s Campaign.

But unlike many Civil Rights activists of the 1960s, Bernard LaFayette Jr., now a distinguished scholar-in-residence and director of the Center for Nonviolence and Peace Studies at the University of Rhode Island, didn’t fade from view or stop from trying to make this world a less violent place.

In ensuing years, the nonviolence strategist traveled to South Vietnam to investigate the suppression of a nonviolent movement during the Vietnam War, served as a mediator at Wounded Knee, S.D. to resolve the conflict between the U.S. government and Sioux Nation, and helped prepare for elections in South Africa.

Along the way, he also earned a doctorate of education from Harvard University, trained people in nonviolence methods in places as diverse as Detroit, Havana, Los Angeles, and Johannesburg. Last spring, while leading a peace walk, he was kidnapped and released by FARC rebels in Colombia, a country rated the most violent in the world by the World Health Organization.

To ensure that LaFayette’s history isn’t lost, retired URI history professor James Findlay, who with the help of Tim Tierney, director of URI’s audiovisual center, has captured a large chunk of LaFayette’s life on videotape.

"What surprises me is how nonviolence has shaped his life and how Doc has been able to integrate all of his experiences in such a way to create such exciting, big projects. His vision is worldwide," said the historian.

"A number of major figures in the Civil Rights Movement have written their memoirs," the historian noted. "Doc is an important figure in the movement, but he’s also incredibly busy, too busy at least for now, to sit down and write a book about himself."

Findlay interviewed the activist about his childhood, his years in the civil rights movement, and his current activities, including the attempt to establish 10 nonviolence centers around the globe. The interviews resulted in 12 hours of commentary and reflection.

Findlay is familiar with oral history. During the ‘70s, the historian interviewed 60 people as part of a statewide oral history project about the textile industry, in the ‘80s served as president of the New England Oral History Association, and used 70 interviews as a key part of his recent scholarly book, Church People in the Struggle: National Council of Churches and the Black Freedom Movement 1950-1970.

Findlay found theology as a common ground for talking with LaFayette, who is an ordained Baptist minister. It seemed quite natural for them to explore LaFayette’s entire life through the prism of nonviolence as the essential element in the civil rights leader’s personal world view and in his daily reactions to the challenging outside world. "The principles of nonviolence are embedded in the Christian faith," noted Findlay.

The historian pointed out that the tapes are simply raw, unedited, historic data, primarily for the use of professional historians, students of the Civil Rights Movement, or even LaFayette himself if he ever sits long enough to write his life’s story.

Findlay plans to prepare a detailed index of the tapes, which will become an archival "guide" to facilitate use of the interviews by historians. There are plans to provide copies of the tapes to key depositories where scholarly research on black history is currently carried out: The Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change in Atlanta, The Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in New York City, the Moorland-Spingarn Research Center at Howard University, and the Amistad Research Center at Tulane University. The original tapes will remain at URI.

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