Charles Alphin Sr. used to scoff at the notion of nonviolence transforming communities. The former St. Louis police captain had frequently experienced racism; and was skeptical of the tactics used by Martin Luther King Jr. and other southern activists.
"I didn’t follow Dr. King and didn’t think what he was doing would work," he said. "I didn't understand it."
Then Alphin met Bernard LaFayette Jr., a King lieutenant who has made nonviolence his life's work,and continues to preach its message today, a half-century after the civil rights movement.
LaFayette is a distinguished senior scholar-in-residence at Emory's Candler School of Theology. In 1961, while a student at American Baptist Theological Seminary, LaFayette joined the "Freedom Rides," a movement that led to the enforcement of federal desegregation laws in interstate travel. In 1968, he led King's Poor People's Campaign, aimed at shining a light on poverty and its causes.
Alphin and LaFayette joined forces in 1975, to address disparities between black and white high school students in St. Louis. LaFayette, a native of Tampa, was serving as an associate pastor at the time and both men had children at the school. Alphin didn't know LaFayette's history, but was struck by his resolve. When he got to know him, and learned about the nonviolent protests he'd been a part of, "I was like a sponge," he said.
"Dr. LaFayette is a master. He leads from the rear. He lets you come at your own pace and it took me 10 years," Alphin said. "I would come down to The King Center and I would take it back [home]. I was a sergeant in a drug-infested community."
The drugs, he said, were a symptom of bigger issues. He and others began to look at what was driving the behavior -- the lack of recreational facilities, high dropout rates and unemployment.
"The police stop crime with the help of other institutions in the communities," he said. "We mobilized and opened up a community center with no budget. "
Inspired by a King
Alphin came to work at The King Center in 1992, certifying people to train others in nonviolence. LaFayette and Associates still works with the King Center on training, Alphin said.
LaFayette, now 70, remembers with irony of the conversation he had with King in his hotel room at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis on the morning of April 4, 1968. Later that day, as LaFayette was traveling to Washington, D.C. to set up for the Poor People's Campaign," King was assassinated.
"He told me he wanted to institutionalize and internationalize nonviolence," LaFayette said. "Even when people do unkind things to us, we respond in a kindly manner. That's the whole concept that Martin Luther King advocated, coming from his religious upbringing. ...An eye for eye, or a tooth for a tooth, leads to a blind, toothless society," he said.
In 1996, he established LaFayette & Associates to teach the foundations of nonviolence. "In our teaching, we help people to understand that King wasn't just talking about tactics or a philosophy, but a way of life," said LaFayette. "He wasn't just talking about social change, but interpersonal change. Sometimes we do more violence toward the people we love. [We] are helping people to change within themselves, to become better parents, better children."
A key component of the training is that you don't challenge people's values, Alphin said. "We ask them questions, like "Does a gun protect you?" and "What is the definition of a man?" In sessions, they urge people to disagree, define their disagreements and argue constructively.
LaFayette and Alphin, now a senior trainer with the firm, have traveled the world teaching King's principles. Working with the Nigerian government, they have trained more than 25,000 rebels to put down their weapons and practice nonviolence in exchange for job training and forgiveness of war crimes. In Colombia, South America, Bella Vista, a notorious prison that had an average of six murders a day, is now a center for nonviolence.
"It takes dedication"
Closer to home, 22-year-old LeAnna Rankin is now a convert.
A shoplifting conviction landed the College Park woman in an Atlanta Municipal Court program aimed at helping first time offenders get their lives back on track.
"It was just a stupid decision," she said of the crime. Community service is a requirement of her sentence. But one weekend, program coordinator Regina Cannon had a different idea: her charges would take a course in nonviolence.
"I thought it would be boring," said Rankin. "I didn't think I'd learn as much from it as I did. Just to have somebody that has been through what Dr. LaFayette has been through [during the civil rights movement." You read about it in school but to see somebody who is telling you stories from actual historical events is unheard of."
Rankin now has her mind set on college and making a better life for her and her young son. "It takes dedication and patience," said of the training in nonviolence. "You just have to practice it and hope somebody embodies what you displayed."
Nonviolence as a way of life
The Six principles of "Kingian" nonviolence, as taught by Dr. Bernard LaFayette, Distinguished Scholar-in-Residence at Emory's Candler School of Theology and founder, LaFayette and Associates:
You can't practice nonviolence unless you have courage.
You have to be willing to accept suffering for the sake of the cause. "If you want to try to reach a goal, such as making an "A" in a class, you can't go out and party, you've got to sacrifice," LaFayette said.
Attack the forces of evil, not the person who is doing the evil. "When we did the Freedom Rides, we weren't there to confront those people who were attacking us; we were attacking the system that allowed discrimination to take place," he said.
Accept suffering without retaliation for the cause.
Avoid violence of the spirit as well as external physical violence. "Sometimes emotional and psychological scars take longer to heal than others," LaFayette said.
The universe is on the side of justice. "You have to believe that what you are doing is in tune with the force of the universe," he said.
"Freedom Riders " at Morehouse College
A screening of the PBS "American Experience" documentary "Freedom Riders," lunch and a discussion will be held at Morehouse College from 9 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. on Wednesday, May 11. Information: http://freedomridersatlanta.eventbrite.com
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