Civil rights leader to Ferguson protesters: “Let the president speak’
SELMA – Civil rights leader Bernard Lafayette was listening intently to President Barack Obama’s speech in Selma on Saturday afternoon when he began to hear what sounded like a drum beat and chants of “We want change, we want change.”
After several minutes, he rose from his chair and, accompanied by the Rev. Darryl Gray, a Southern Christian Leadership Conference friend, they made their way through a large crowd behind him to where the commotion came from.
Lafayette said one of the young demonstrators told him they were from Ferguson, Missouri, where a police officer fatally shot a young, unarmed black man last year — an event that led to weeks of violent protests.
“I asked them why they were making such a ruckus, and one told me they were upset that the president wasn’t addressing their concerns, but never really told me what they were,” said Lafayette.
A voting rights pioneer who began registering black residents in Selma two years before the protests began there, Lafayette has continued to advocate human rights issues in Alabama.
Obama did not appear upset during his speech as the noise continued for several minutes from an area not far away from where he stood on a stage at the base of the Edmund Pettus Bridge.
Lafayette said the demonstrators brought along their own “musical instruments” in what appeared to be a well-planned protest.
“It wasn’t spontaneous,” said Lafayette, who had been sitting next to his wife, Kate, in a special seated section. “It was well planned and when I asked who their leader was, it turned out to be an older woman.”
He said one of the demonstrators began crying that nobody would listen to their complaints and Lafayette let him know that he had been arrested 27 times during the protests he was involved in and once was targeted for assassination in Selma.
Lafayette, who will be 75 in July, originally was a member of the Nashville Student Movement and worked closely throughout the 1960s with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, better known as SNCC.
Gray said Lafayette approached the noisy group in a “peaceful manner” and had no interest in causing a problem during Obama’s speech that was interrupted several times. Lafayette found a way to quiet the protesters when one of the group’s leaders told him they had “freedom of speech” and that’s when I asked why they didn’t let the president speak.
At that point, the drum beats and shouts of “We Want Change” stopped.
As far as Obama’s speech was concerned, Lafayette was impressed and gave the president an “8” on a scale of 1-10.
He said positive change tends, at times, to be followed by backward steps, but indicated he is happy to see the president’s stance on key issues during the final two years of his second term in office.
“Barack has an opportunity to use the power and force of his office to make a major difference in some areas,” said Lafayette. “I hope that’s what he will do.”
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