Bernard LaFayette, Jr., was the first of the leading southern civil rights activists to turn to organizing in Chicago. In 1964, he was recruited to work for the Chicago office of the American Friends Service Committee. He began working on the city’s West Side and energized local residents to mobilize against lead poisoning. LaFayette’s presence in Chicago was decisive in luring James Bevel to Chicago in 1965 as program director for the West Side Christian Parish. LaFayette and Bevel attended the American Baptist Seminary together in Nashville, Tennessee. There they both became advocates of non-violent direct action and leaders in the Nashville sit-in movement in the early 1960s. LaFayette and Bevel were charter members of the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee. In 1961, both were instrumental in continuing the Freedom Rides when they seemed on the verge of halting because of vicious white violence in Alabama.
LaFayette helped to lay the groundwork for a broader mobilization of West Side residents. Ultimately, this effort led to the “End Slums” campaign of 1966. When the Chicago Freedom Movement sought a focus for a direct-action project in the summer of 1966, LaFayette drew on his commitment to nonviolence and experience in supervising direct action insurgency to strengthen the open-housing initiative. He was a critical figure in the Action Committee, which carried out the open-housing demonstrations in July and August 1966.
Martin Luther King, Jr., tapped LaFayette to serve as the director of the Poor People’s Campaign in 1968. Later, he earned his doctorate in education at Harvard University. Combining his formal study of nonviolence and his own application of this method of social change, he is now widely recognized as one of the leading exponents of nonviolent direct action in the world.