Colia Liddell was born in rural Hinds County and grew up in Jackson, where she was educated in the city’s segregated school system. Her family was active in the Southern Tenant Farmers’ Union and other social movements. Every fall until Liddell was fifteen, her family migrated to Bentonia, in the Mississippi Delta, to pick cotton, where she and her siblings saw firsthand the mistreatment of and acts of violence against blacks. The murder of Emmett Till in August 1955 had a particularly strong influence on the girl’s determination to fight for civil rights.
The Liddell family was actively involved in the Jackson movement, and Co
lia joined the city’s chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and served as special assistant to Medgar Evers, the organization’s first Mississippi’s field secretary. In 1961, while a student at Tougaloo College, Liddell organized and became the first president of the North Jackson Youth Council, with John Salter, a social science professor, as the youth group’s adviser. Under Clark’s leadership, the Youth Council played an integral role in the development of the Jackson movement, planning and initiating economic boycotts against various venues, especially on Capitol Street in downtown Jackson.
By the summer of 1962 Clark had resigned from her position with the NAACP and joined the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) under the leadership of Bob Moses, helping promote voter education among African Americans in Jackson, Hattiesburg, and the Mississippi Delta. In November 1962 she married Bernard LaFayette Jr., who had participated in the 1961 Freedom Rides and served as a SNCC field secretary.
In early 1963 the couple moved to Selma, Alabama, to organize a voter registration project in Dallas County, where blacks comprised a majority of the population but had no political power. Bernard LaFayette became director of SNCC’s Black Belt Alabama Voter Registration Project, while Colia became the organization’s field secretary. The LaFayettes’ work helped to lay the foundation for a sustained and organized movement in Selma.
In May 1963 SNCC executive secretary James Forman chose Colia LaFayette to help organize the Birmingham movement. She and other activists met organized resistance under the authority of police commissioner Eugene “Bull” Conner: she was one of the demonstrators hit by water from fire hoses on 8 May 1963. Her involvement in the Jackson movement had taught her the importance of youth activism, and she helped recruit Birmingham high school students to participate in civil rights activism.
In 1964 LaFayette moved to Nashville, Tennessee, becoming a member of the Southern Organizing Committee. Her activism later took her to Chicago, where she and other civil rights activists took on racial discrimination and inequality in the North. In early 1978 she returned to Mississippi and served as the editor of the state’s premier black publication, the Jackson Advocate. She later earned a master’s degree at Georgia’s Albany State University. She now lives in New York, where in 2010 and 2012 she ran for the US Senate on the Green Party ticket. She remains active in the struggle for human rights, working to confront issues such as American involvement in foreign wars, imperialism, capitalism, homelessness, and police brutality.
- Civil Rights Movement Veterans website, www.crmvet.org
- Colia Liddell LaFayette Clark, interview with Dr. Alferdteen Harrison, Margaret Walker Alexander Center for Research and Culture, Jackson, Miss. (17 July 1974)
- James Forman, The Making of Black Revolutionaries (1985)
- David Halberstam, The Children (1998)
- Anthony Palmer and Colia Clark, Socialist Organizer (3 March 2015), socialistorganizer.org
- John R. Salter, Jackson, Mississippi: An American Chronicle of Struggle and Schism (1979)