A civil rights leader comes home.

By: and - November 22, 2022 6:04 am
Rev. Dr. Bernard Lafayette and his wife, Kate Bulls Lafayette, leave American Baptist College in Nashville on Friday after a visit to see renovations. (Photo: John Partipilo)

Rev. Dr. Bernard Lafayette and his wife, Kate Bulls Lafayette, leave American Baptist College in Nashville on Friday after a visit to see renovations. (Photo: John Partipilo)

The campus of American Baptist College has changed little since Rev. Bernard Lafayette moved to Nashville in 1960 to attend seminary.

A handful of neat red brick buildings, built in the 1920s and 30s, still cluster in the shadow of the headquarters of the newer National Baptist Convention off Brick Church Pike in North Nashville. 

“We had a mule hooked up to one of those grass cutters, and my first job was cutting grass,” Lafayette, 82, reminisced Friday as administrators and board members of the school showed him the renovated interior of Griggs Hall, home to the chapel and McClure Library.

But the size of the tiny campus belies the magnitude of the school’s — and its alumni’s — impact in the American civil rights movement.

Lafayette, who came to American Baptist as a 20-year-old from Florida, roomed with the late U.S. Rep. John Lewis. The pair, joined by fellow student James Bevel, attended nonviolence training with Rev. James Lawson, who had studied nonviolent resistance techniques in India with Mahatma Gandhi. 

The quartet became central to the effort to desegregate Nashville’s lunch counters and department stores and were among the group of young civil rights activists to found the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), members of whom also led Freedom Rides and voter registration drives in the South.

Lafayette spoke Thursday at Scarritt Bennett Center, a nonprofit conference center and retreat in Nashville. 

He and his wife, Kate Bulls Lafayette, spent the remainder of the weekend checking out ABC, where Lafayette returned to serve as president in 1992, preaching once again at Missionary Progressive Baptist Church — the church he pastored while also serving at ABC — and wandering the Mt. Juliet farm where the Rev. Will Campbell, a white Southern Baptist preacher, mentored the young Black civil rights leaders.

During an interview at American Baptist, Lafayette talked about how he and Lewis came to room together — “I had a large second-floor room for two; John was a year ahead of me and he had taken the same classes I was going to have” — how many times he was arrested during the 1960s civil rights movement — 30 — and how his nonviolence training may have helped him thwart a 1963 assassination attempt in Selma, Alabama.

“No matter who you are, don’t give in,” Lafayette said before leaving American Baptist on Friday. “Change is possible if you have a goal: Find a role, find a purpose.”

Photojournalist John Partipilo accompanied the Lafayettes throughout the weekend during their Nashville homecoming.

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John Partipilo
John Partipilo

Working as a photojournalist for 40 years, Partipilo has won awards such as NPPA Best of Photojournalism and nominated for two Pulitzers. His photography has also been featured in national and international publications. Most importantly Partipilo’s work is about people — people in their different environments and people in their different stages of life. That’s the heart of his work. To him people are so important, because they all have a unique story.

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Holly McCall
Holly McCall

Holly McCall has been a fixture in Tennessee media and politics for decades. She covered city hall for papers in Columbus, Ohio and Joplin, Missouri before returning to Tennessee with the Nashville Business Journal. She has served as political analyst for WZTV Fox 17 and provided communications consulting for political campaigns at all levels, from city council to presidential. Holly brings a deep wealth of knowledge about Tennessee’s political processes and players and likes nothing better than getting into the weeds of how political deals are made.

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