James Lawson is a living link to the Civil Rights Movement that brought social and legislative changes that helped end legal and institutionalized racial discrimination in the United States. He grew up in Ohio, the son of a Methodist preacher who taught him to defend himself if necessary, but at a young age experienced a “sanctification” when his mother told him love was more powerful than his vengeful slapping of a child who called him a racial slur. Lawson developed a deeply held pacifism and in college read Gandhi and joined the Fellowship of Reconciliation (FOR). His beliefs in nonviolent resistance were tested when he refused to register for the draft during the Korean War; rather than take a deferment as a divinity student, he served thirteen months in federal prison. Lawson spent three years in India as a missionary and learned Gandhi’s philosophy, tactics, and techniques for satyagraha, action through moral force rather than violence.
News accounts of the Montgomery, Alabama, bus boycott of 1955–56 and its spokesperson Martin Luther King Jr. convinced Lawson to return to the States and get involved. He enrolled in graduate school at Oberlin College, where he met King, who recognized a kindred spirit and Lawson’s promise. King urged him to abandon his plan for further study prior to becoming a pastor and to start the work as soon as possible. Lawson took this advice and then a job as a Southern field secretary for the FOR, moved to Nashville, Tennessee, and in fall 1959 began nonviolence training for small groups of college students, convinced that dedicated young people could bring change but that discipline and the ability to withstand taunts, possible injury, and certainly arrest were necessary. Lunch counter sit-ins began in February 1960, the numbers of willing demonstrators swelled; before long demonstrations, Freedom Rides, and actions spread across the South. In Nashville after three months of sit-ins, numerous arrests, and boycotts of downtown merchants, the mayor denounced segregation and businesses were integrated. In 1961 Lawson-trained Freedom Riders went from Montgomery to Jackson, Mississippi, where they were stopped, and their choice of jail over paying fines followed by police beatings brought out even more protestors and galvanized the Kennedy administration to take action and force the complete desegregation of interstate travel.
Lawson become the pastor at a Memphis church in 1962, and he led a strategy committee and mobilized community support for the 1968 sanitation workers’ strike that produced the famous “I Am a Man” campaign and ended with successful labor negotiations, but sadly King was assassinated after giving a speech there in support. In 1974 Lawson moved to a church in Los Angeles, and has been involved in civil liberties movements for gay and reproductive rights as well as economic justice and labor fairness such as living wage laws. He engaged in actions protesting US government support of a murderous government in El Salvador in 1989 and economic sanctions against the people of Iraq in 2000; he joined several organizations in the launch of an Immigrant Worker Freedom Ride in 2003. In 2005 Vanderbilt University in Nashville— which had expelled him from graduate school in 1960s for his activism—named Lawson a distinguished alumnus; he served as a distinguished visiting professor for the next three years. Lawson remains a busy and eloquent advocate of social justice and nonviolence as a timely idea for liberating human aspiration from what he calls the juggernaut of militarism and war: “Life itself is powerful and the gift of life gives power. . . . I like to say philosophically that nonviolence is the power of creation given to human beings.”
In 2011 the International Center on Nonviolent Conflict (ICNC) at Tufts University’s Fletcher School gave its first annual James Lawson Awards for achievements in nonviolent conflict. In August 2014 Lawson participated in an eight-day workshop in Nashville on the strategic evaluation of nonviolent civil resistance at the ICNC’s James Lawson Institute.
Photo: Daniel Dubois/Vanderbilt