But most voting rights activists worked alone in small isolated Southern communities surrounded by people who wanted to kill them -- and did at times with the help of local law enforcement.
"I wasn't sure whether or not I was going to survive Selma," Lafayette says.
The attempt on his life, though, backfired. It angered many of Selma's black residents. They started showing up at Lafayette's mass meetings, and more tried to register to vote.
The white leaders in Selma retaliated. Blacks were fired from their jobs when their employers discovered that they had tried to vote.
Sheriff's deputies assaulted blacks who tried to vote.
"Many of these people risked everything -- their jobs, homes, even their lives -- for the right to vote," May says. "When I talk about them to groups, I get chills."
The blood that Lafayette shed that night became the seed for the voting rights movement. It drew the attention of Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.
Selma would eventually become the launching pad for the Voting Rights Act and Lafayette would join King's inner circle.
Today, Lafayette is a senior fellow at the University of Rhode Island, where he founded the Center for Nonviolence and Peace Studies. He's the author of a forthcoming book on his time in Selma titled "In Peace and Freedom."
He says the country still needs Section 5.
"I don't feel a sense of anger; I feel a sense disappointment" at the prospect of Section 5 being struck down, he says. "We have to recognize that our struggle is not over. Our real struggle now is to retain some of the rights that we gained, and rights that we fought for. And this is something we didn't expect."
Ask Lafayette and other civil rights activists why they took such risks, and they often go into "Civil Rights Mode." They talk abstractly about nonviolence. But listen closely, and there's often a pivotal moment in their lives that drove them to risk so much.
For Lafayette, that moment came when he was 7 and riding a streetcar with his grandmother.
Blacks in his hometown of Tampa were forced by segregation to ride in the back of streetcars. They had to pay their fare in front, then exit the streetcar and go to the rear where they could get on again and sit. They walked quickly, knowing conductors often took off before they could make it to the rear, deliberately stranding black passengers.
One day, his grandmother, Rozeila Forester, paid their fare, and he walked to the back of the streetcar and hopped on. But his grandmother never made it. As she ran to catch up to the car, Lafayette held out his hand. Her heels caught in the cobblestone, and he watched her crumple to the ground.
"I felt like a sword had cut me in half," he says.
Lafayette decided then that he was going to do something about segregation when he grew up.
"I couldn't get grown fast enough," he says. "Whenever there was an opportunity to get involved in the movement, to bring about changes in these conditions, I jumped."
It was the punch seen around the nation.
Television cameras were rolling when a minister trying to register black voters in Selma gave the civil rights movement one of its most dramatic confrontations.
It was February 1965, and the Rev. C.T. Vivian had picked up where Lafayette left off. Selma had become the epicenter of the drive to secure the black vote. Vivian had joined King and thousands of demonstrators who had descended upon Selma to destroy the blockade against black voters.
The activists couldn't have picked a better villain for their campaign. They were opposed by Dallas County Sheriff Jim Clark, a big man -- 6-foot-2 and 220 pounds -- with a short temper. Brandishing a cattle prod and wearing a World War II helmet similar to George Patton's, he often attacked protesters with cattle prods and tear gas.
One rainy morning, Vivian led marchers to a courthouse, where Clark refused to allow them entrance. The rangy, fiery minister planted himself in front of Clark and began to preach, comparing him to Hitler.
"You're racist in the same way that Hitler was a racist," Vivian said to Clark.