Colia Liddell (Lafayette)
Raised in Hinds County, Mississippi
Colia Liddell (Lafayette) began working with SNCC in 1962, but civil rights had long been an important part of her life. She was born in Dry Grove in Hinds County, Mississippi, to a father who had been farm labor activist and a mother active with the progressive Baptist church. Both of her parents were registered voters. As early as the 1950s, voter registration activists often stayed at her mother’s house. Liddell paid close attention when Montgomery student, Claudette Colvin, refused to sit in the back of a bus, ninth months before Rosa Parks, and was deeply shaken by the murder of Emmett Till not long afterwards.
While a student at Tougaloo Southern Christian College, Liddell helped establish a Black history club on campus and the youth chapter of the North Jackson NAACP. She brought in Tougaloo sociology professor John Salter as an adult advisor. This NAACP chapter would later take part in a major attempt to desegregate a Woolworth’s lunch counter, highlighting Jackson as an important site of nonviolent direct action in Mississippi.
Liddell then began working with SNCC, helping to register voters in Jackson. By 1962 she, along with other young Mississippians, moved into the Mississippi Delta with SNCC to do the same. She met and married Bernard Lafayette, another SNCC field secretary, in November, 1962, and the couple traveled to Selma, Alabama in 1963 to begin a voter registration campaign there. This was SNCC’s first voter registration organizing effort in Alabama, and one that SNCC considered the starting point for a statewide project.
When the Lafayette’s got to Selma, they began working with the Dallas County Voters League. The Voters League connected Bernard and Colia to Selma’s teachers and other Black middle-class residents; but in SNCC’s now well-established grassroots organizing tradition, they also organized working-class families in the housing projects. Some of their earliest and most enthusiastic supporters were students from R.B. Hudson High School. Regardless of their growing circles of support in the Black community, a pair of white men still beat Bernard bloody not long after the Lafayette’s arrival.
Urged by SNCC executive secretary James Forman, Colia Lafayette served briefly as an assistant for SCLC’s campaign in Birmingham, Alabama. On May 8, 1963, she was sprayed by fire hoses “for what seemed like forever,” she recalled later. In 1964, Colia and her husband left Alabama and enrolled in Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee to finish their schooling. SNCC’s voter registration campaign in Alabama continued, thanks to the base that the Lafayette’s had helped establish.
Colia Liddell Lafayette’s activism continued. After helping establish the Southern Organizing Committee in Nashville, she worked with other civil rights movement projects in Chicago and New York, eventually returning to her native Mississippi in 1973.
Clayborne Carson, In Struggle: SNCC and the Black Awakening of the 1960s (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1981).
John Dittmer, Local People: The Struggle for Civil Rights in Mississippi (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1994).
Prathia Hall, “Blood Selma,” Hands on the Freedom Plow: Personal Accounts by Women in SNCC, edited by Faith Holsaert et al. (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2012), 470-472.
Charles Payne, I’ve Got the Light of Freedom: The Organizing Tradition and the Mississippi Freedom Struggle (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995).
Howell Raines, ed., My Soul is Rested: The Story of the Civil Rights Movement in the Deep South (New York: Penguin Books, 1997).