The Birth of a Nonviolent Activist: Recollections of Childhood and the Experience of Racism

A Birthday Tribute to Rev. James M. Lawson—Part I: “Jimmy, What Good Did That Do”

Today, September 22nd, marks the 92nd birthday of the Reverend James M. Lawson, once described by Martin Luther King as the greatest strategist of nonviolence in the US.  I have, on this blog, penned a couple of essays on him over the last 2-3 years, and also included excerpts from our recorded conversations extending to around 26-27 hours which commenced in December 2013 and are now slowly but surely being edited with the aim of creating a compact book on the greatest living practitioner of nonviolence in the United States, one whose experience in training three generations of nonviolent resisters and dissenters extends over 70 years.  Our first conversation took place shortly after the death of Nelson Mandela on December 5, and was largely on the subject of Mandela, the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa, the US support of the apartheid regime, and the place of nonviolence in modern politics.  We discussed at length both Mandela’s achievements and what we both saw, though perhaps in different in complementary ways, as some of the shortcomings of the struggle in South Africa—shortcomings which, judging only from the continuing strife and plight of black people in South Africa, may have been considerable.  Excerpts from this discussion will be shared in this blog on the death anniversary of Mandela.

In the second half of our two-hour long conversation when we first sat down, I asked Rev. Lawson to share with me details from his early years.  The excerpts that follow are from this part of the discussion and are only slightly edited to retain the flavor of the conversation.  In this portion, it is, for obvious reasons, mainly Rev. Lawson’s voice that we hear as he shares some intimate details about early incidents of racism and in particular one episode where he describes his experience of the numinous and how he started gravitating towards the idea of nonviolence.

The author with Rev. James M. Lawson at the conclusion of a 4-day conference on Gandhi, UCLA, 2 February 2020.

VL: Maybe you could tell me a little bit about your early life—where you were born, what memories you have of your childhood, what memories you have of racial discrimination.  Are there things that you can think of, which call to mind the sense both of injustice and justice that you began to acquire, I’m assuming, relatively early in life. So, I’d like to hear more about that.

JL: Well, I’ve looked back for a long time now on some of these matters, and I think that I can trace my nonviolent activism back to a fairly early age.  I was born in Union Town, Pennsylvania on September 22, 1928.  My father was an AME Zion Pastor—that’s African Methodist Episcopal Zion Pastor.  That denomination was one of two black movements out of the 1780s in which black folk in New York and Philadelphia who went to white congregations in almost every case, but in this case, they were Methodists.  And in both cities, there was a movement of black people who were upset with the subtle and not-so-subtle racism in these majority white congregations, and they broke away and formed their own congregations. So the AME Zion Church was one of these, and they broke away in New York City.  The AME Church is the better known of these two denominations; they broke away in Philadelphia…  So, they operated and developed their own congregations.  They left over various kinds of incidents, which they considered a rejection of their fundamental humanity; not just a denial of Jesus, and of the Bible as they understood it, but a racism that was in the church.  So, he was a member of that denomination, and that’s the one in which I was born into and baptized at the John Wesley AME Zion church in Union Town, Pennsylvania. My dad was an activist pastor.  He was the son of an escaped slave; born in Canada.  Some of this we have uncovered and recognized over the last thirty to forty years; but he said this, anyway, to us—I learned it first from him.

VL: So, your paternal grandfather was born in Canada?

JL: No, my father was born in Canada.

VL: Oh, your father was born in Canada?

JL:  My father’s grandfather escaped slavery at a very early age as a teenager with his father.  So, my grandfather and my great grandfather escaped slavery.  And we know this to be historically accurate. We have family in Canada still—cousins…

VL: What were the circumstances under which your father was born in Canada, though?

JL: Well, because his father was an escaped slave—and his grandfather—and they had established a farm in the area of Guelph, Ontario. And that farm—I’ve not seen it, but I’ve been to Guelph several times myself, and I’ve met relatives there.  Whether its still in the hands of Lawson descendants, I don’t know that now, at all.  It was initially back in the fifties and sixties, but now in 2013, I have no idea.  But, in any case, that’s where he was born: in Guelph in 1883.

VL: That’s your father?

JL: Yeah.  But I don’t know the full story; all I do know is that my father, apparently, decided at an early age that he was going to come to the US and settle and become a citizen, which he did somewhere around the time of World War I. He was a graduate of McGill University; managed to do that somehow; I don’t know the story.  He was an ordained British Methodist Pastor in Canada.  We have seen his first church in Canada, where they have a plaque that says, James Morris Lawson, Sr. was pastor here, and the years…

VL: So, your father knew French, if he went to McGill?

JL: Not that I know of… I don’t know this.  He may have known some…

VL: …because McGill is up in Montreal.

JL: I don’t know … He never…

VL: …he never spoke to you in French.

JL: He didn’t speak to us in French, but what conversations went on with my father at the table and as a child, of that I have very little recollection.  But the one thing I do have a very strong sense of is that I was born into a closely-knit family that mother and father framed and formed and ran—they were the center of the family.

VL: Where did you father meet your mother?

JL: Apparently in Jamestown, NY, where he was a pastor.  I don’t know when they met, but she came to the US as an eighteen-year old woman from Jamaica.  And she came as a nanny for a British couple that was apparently coming to Jamestown, maybe; I don’t know for sure because I don’t remember my father or mother talking about it. But in any case, she was an eighteen-year old nanny when she met my father, and his first wife died, and she became his second wife. So, that’s how they met.  In any case, the most important thing was that it was a very loving family very deeply rooted in the love of God and the love of Jesus.  And very greatly rooted in the notion of love as the principle operating thing of the Christian faith.  So, it was that kind of family.  So, I maintain from this distance, as I have for a number of decades now, that I was filled with a very deep sense of my own being at an [early] age … maybe even from infancy. And the reason I say this is, I know it was a very loving family, though I didn’t understand that at my age, my dad’s bishop appointed him to go to Massillon, Ohio for the St. James AME Zion church, and I was four.  I know that as a matter of fact.  And I remember the experience of moving onto Tremont St. and unloading, men from somewhere in Pennsylvania helping my dad unload and all of that. And it is on the streets of Massillon, Ohio that I am first called Nigger.

VL: Do you have a clear recollection of that?

JL: I don’t have the specific incident.  I remember some incidents later on, but I don’t remember that specific one, but that I remember very clearly getting called Nigger, if not on the streets then at a near-by park.

VL: And you were four at that time?

JL: I was four.  And my reaction was to go after the kid who called me that and fight him.  And I have never been able to explain that reaction except to say that in these boyhood, childish incidents, I felt my existence and being was being threatened. I felt the hostility in that, and I struck out after the person.  And I did that, from that time on, on the play field where I also got called that, and in the parks.  I don’t remember—this is one of the strange things about this—I don’t remember ever being called Nigger in a classroom or in the school or in the school playground.

VL: Did you go to an integrated school?

JL: No, I went to a desegregated school.  The black folk in Star County, as I remember in high school, maybe were ten percent of the population. So, a relatively small population. Most of them having come up from the South in the twentieth century because Massillon was a part of the manufacturing, steel-making, roller bearing-making, automobile-parts making industry in that part of Ohio.  So, there were jobs.  In addition to that, Massillon was a part of a region where high school football was taken very seriously.  And the rumor is that coaches and businessmen recruited from the South. Now, that’s what I grew up with. I learned this, you see. Specifics I never knew, but there was recruitment.

VL: Is Massillon somewhere in the vicinity of Oberlin, by any chance?

JL:  Thirty miles away… in that North-Eastern corner of Ohio.  And there was Steubenville, Warren, Wooster, Oberlin, Alliance, Canton, Akron, Wadsworth—these were all places where in those years there were excellent schools.  And while some schools had maybe no blacks in them, Canton did; Oberlin did; Wooster did; Lorraine did, where Toni Morrison was in the Lorraine School system—they were all quality school systems.  And where, as I began to realize in college, I had just had an excellent schooling from elementary up through high school—excellent opportunity.

VL: And you went through Massillon schools all the way to the end?

JL: That’s right–twelfth grade.  All of us did. My oldest sister was seven years older, but she must have started school before that.  But we were all in the Lauren Andrews school when we first moved to Massillon…

VL: How many siblings are you?

JL: At that time there were nine of us.

VL: But some of the children were from your father’s first marriage?

JL: No, the two boys from his first marriage were already young adults. And both of them were living in Cleveland, Ohio by this time—on their own, independent.  And Mark had his own family.  My dad was fifteen years older than my mother… probably; I don’t know exactly.

VL: So, going back to that incident that you mentioned when you said you have some recollection without knowing the specific details, when you were called a nigger, you said, but not at school…

JL: Yeah, that’s the strange thing. And I’ve checked this with my brother Phillip, who is four years younger than I.  He was a baby when we moved to Massillon—that’s one of the reasons I knew I was four, because he was a newborn baby.  He was maybe a month or two months old; he was in diapers, had to be cared for.  So, I remember all that.  And my mother was very sick from his birth, and she remained for another six months in the [city?] hospital in Pennsylvania, and she was not allowed to move when my dad was appointed. So, the family divided: we all went with my father to Massillon, OH, and then our mother joined us maybe five months later and was still quite ill and largely still confined to bed when she moved to Tremont Street.

VL: But there were several incidents that you mentioned of being called a nigger.

JL: Oh, yes… more than one.  But again, I do not remember it ever happening in a school.  This is strange.

VL: What accounts for that?

JL: I don’t know. I still to this day do not know.  Now, there were racial incidents in schools, which I didn’t know about.  The one that I know most about was my brother Bill, who was a year younger than I, and we were both in high school at that time.  So, that’s the only one that I know of.

VL: And what was this racial incident?

JL: With Bill? Well, it’s one of the things that taught me about racism.  We were all musicians: we sang and we played instruments.  Our family was a very musical family.  So, when I entered high school, I went into the band.  And when bill came to high school, he entered the band, being probably the best musician in the city at that time.

VL: What instrument did he play?

JL: He played a saxophone.

VL: And yourself?

JL: I played the trombone and, in the marching band, I played tuba.  So, Bill was a pianist (and by that time could play everything and anything), was a composer, a jazz musician, a classical musician, and was teaching himself organ.

VL: And this is when both of you were still in high school?

JL: Yeah, it was in high school.  So, as Bill became a junior—one year behind me… so, we were in the band together for two years before I graduated… He followed me in the tenth grade when I was in the eleventh grade.  So, we were musicians together in the band, in the concert orchestra and what not.  And he was clearly the best musician in the school, and he sang in the choir as well—was a soloist in both orchestra and choir… had a beautiful tenor voice.  So, in the eleventh grade, the concert orchestra director took a piano concerto that he had written, and helped him perfect it so it became a concert piece for the orchestra—his junior year.

VL: Extraordinary!

JL: Yeah, it is. So, then, what happened was that he was in the leading musician in both choir and band, and it was assumed by the students that when he went to his senior year, that he would become the student director of the Capella choir and the band.  In both cases, the directors chose a white person, a white student—but telling Bill, you’re such an excellent musician, and you’re so highly qualified, but this person needs that position more than you.

VL: This is of course another form of racism.

JL: Absolutely.  Both the director of the bands and the orchestra and the director of the choir or the choral music said to him the same thing.  So, he finished his high school year under the shadow of those two decisions. And, of course, he was always having to answer the questions of his peers: Well, you should have been the music director… You should have been the student director… Why aren’t you the student director, Bill?

VL: So, that must have brought you to an awareness of more subtle forms of racism.

JL:  Yes, and to this day, I kick myself that I did not challenge this experience with Bill by getting him to talk about it, so I would learn more about it. I knew about it early on, but…

VL: …you never talked to him about it.

JL: …I don’t remember ever…  We might have because we were all close.  At that time, my three younger brothers and I were all very close because we were only a year to eighteen months apart.  And we could go nowhere without each other in those first years. I mean, that was the rule of the parents.  I do remember protesting it.

The Columbia Heights neighborhood in Massillon, Ohio in the 1920s.

VL: So, you would have graduated from high school around ’45/’46?

JL: Yeah, ’46.

VL: Alright, so 1946. So, let me ask you this: you mentioned that you become somewhat aware at the age of…

JL: Well, not just aware… but I should tell you the rest of that story, because in those years to the fourth grade, I fought on the playground in games at the park. In games, it would be mostly getting angry with another person or another person—another boy, usually—getting angry with me over some incident on the football field or the basketball or the baseball field, because we played all of them…  And then this being resolved in a fight. Outside of that, there were the incidents at the park and on the street of being called nigger.  Fourth grade, that abruptly changed, radically changed, because we were at an elementary school… here’s our house here [at this point, Lawson uses his hands to paint for me the lay of the land], and that school was up the alley, down the street, and up another block, and there was Courseman [?] Elementary School.  My sister Daisy and four brothers were in that school at that time.  And on a beautiful spring day, I charged in immediately (I’m not sure why, but I ran most of the way, which wasn’t a big distance) into the backyard of the house—a back enclosed porch, here, that went right into the kitchen.  And my mother met me there in the kitchen (she was already working on the meal that night)… and as soon as we greeted each other, she said, I have an errand for you to run. I was the errand boy of the family for my father and mother. And so, she gave me the instructions. I don’t remember it; all I remember is that I ran out the back door, up this alley way, and then down First Street all the way into Main Street of Massillon.  I made a turn onto this street and there was a car parked just a few yards after I turned onto Main St. And a youngster was in the car, stood up on the seat in the car with his head outside above the car, and yelled at me as I came by, Nigger.  Just like that.  And I’m in a hurry, but I go over to the car, I slap this person—whoever it was—ran on and finished the errand, wherever it was, up in here somewhere. Then afterwards, ran on back… the car I noticed was gone.  I ran back down, back into the backyard, and back into the kitchen.  My mother’s there; I don’t remember anyone else being around, which is a mystery to me still.  And I report the errand to my mom, and then I sat in a favorite seat right by this porch door—a popular seat.  And my mother is over here in the kitchen working over the stove.  And after I’ve given her the results or whatever of the errand, I then tell her of this incident.  That’s the only time I remember telling either my father or mother about such an incident.  To my knowledge, I never told them.  And my mother does not turn around; she keeps her back to me. And she proceeds, then, to start a soliloquy with me that begins with—I shall never forget the words—”Jimmy, what good did that do?”

VL: She’s referring to your slapping him.

JL: That’s right.  “What good did that do?” And then she went into a long soliloquy about our family, love, God, the Church; that that didn’t do any good; this name-calling didn’t mean anything, couldn’t mean anything against who I was and how I was loved.  And the rest of it.  And I don’t remember that statement at all to any degree of conviction, but the last thing she says is, “Jimmy, there must be a better way.” And that haunted me for the rest of my life—continues to haunt me. And in the midst of this soliloquy, which I now know to have been a numinous experience… what Rudolph Otto, one of the great Theologians …

VL: … writing about the idea of the holy.

JL: That’s right. You know it! Well, he calls—I read the book later in college—he calls it a numinous experience.  The whole world was standing still.  I don’t know anything going on. I hear nothing, nothing whatsoever.  Only my mother’s voice.  And then in the midst of that experience, I hear a voice, which I decide later is me, but coming from a depth that I never realized before, and it says, “Well, ok Jim, you will never again try to beat up on someone on the playing field or like you just did.  Never again.”  I’ve kept that promise.  Then, later on, I hear the voice saying, “…and you will find a better way.”

VL: So, your first lessons in nonviolence came early. And I am reminded, by the way, of Gandhi’s autobiography because he describes there the profound impress of his mother’s way of thinking on him.

JL: That’s right. And also his nanny.  [This is a reference to Rambha, a maid who worked in the Gandhi household; the young Mohandas was afraid of the dark, and feared ghosts and snakes; and it is Rambha told him to be without fear, and take the name of Rama.] They were Jains apparently.  That’s right. So, from then on… shortly after that there was an incident in my school where some of us after school were playing basketball, and someone got angry with me.  And normally, we would have fought, but this time I tried to persuade him not to and I walked away from him.  I will never forget that.  Then there’s another time after that on the street, in Massillon.  Again, it happened that a kid in a car yelled Nigger at me, and I went over and started talking to him.  And within a few minutes, we were chatting with each other as longtime friends.  And I had in my mind that I was going to wait until the parent came, and I’d tell the parent what had transpired.  But the parent was too long [in coming] and I finally had to leave, so I didn’t get to do that. But I remember those two incidents.  Whether they were within a few days or weeks, I don’t remember that. But I remember those two incidents where I decided not to slap, not to fight… On the basketball court and on the street with the child in the car.

VL: And you said that you never had discussed any of these incidents until this particular incident that you described in detail… you never discussed them with your parents.

JL: I had never discussed it with my parents. Never.

(to be continued)


1 thought on “The Birth of a Nonviolent Activist: Recollections of Childhood and the Experience of Racism

  1. First off, I like how when you asked Mr. Lawson if he went to an integrated school, he replied that he did not, and instead went to a “desegrated school,” implying that there was a difference between the two. Secondly, I can relate to Mr. Lawson, especially when you asked about the “subtle” forms of racism he experienced. Growing up in New Orleans, LA, and being of Indian/Bengali descent, people (even people I saw as friends) would call me “Kumar” as a joke. At the time I thought it was funny, but growing up has made me realize how racist it was, and how racist people continue to be. Similarly, when I played soccer for high school, and we would travel to more rural, and therefore racist, areas in Louisiana, opposing parents would chant things like “spray-tan” and such, which was obviously extremely racist, especially by grown adults who were shouting these remarks to a 16-year old boy.


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