Part II of a Birthday Tribute to Rev. James M. Lawson–“The Birth of a Nonviolent Activist”
In the second part of Rev. Lawson’s recollections of his childhood in Massillon, Ohio, he discusses his school years, the fights he got into with some other boys, and, most critically, the fact that though his father and mother had differing (if predictably differing) views on how he should address the taunts or challenges from other boys, the environment at his home was nurturing and that his parents were one in being determined to see young Jimmy and his siblings shape up to be decent, reflective, and morally responsible human beings. But in this portion of the conversation Rev. Lawson also discusses at some length his father’s work as a pastor, shares some lovely and intimate details of life in the household of a black family, and reflects on the political context — lynchings of Black people, America’s entry into World War II, and, what is often overlooked, the importance of the African American press. The African-American press was vibrant and even prolific; at one time, the Pittsburgh Courier, which Rev. Lawson mentions reading in the public library, had at its peak during World War II a subscription of around 250,000 and correspondents in several parts of the world. There were other African American newspapers which, as I have elsewhere written (including this piece called “King and the Mahatma”, Open Magazine, 29 September 2020, though longer scholarly articles are forthcoming), carried detailed coverage of the Indian independence movement and generally offered unequivocal support of the nonviolence struggle for freedom whose chief architect was Gandhi. The excerpts reproduced here take us to the end of young Lawson’s schooling.
VL: But was the question of racism in a broader sense ever brought to the table? Was there any discussion at home about this?
JL: Oh, yes. My older sister tells me this was often talked about. … In our family history, my father as a pastor became a Methodist, then later a United Methodist. So, we both went to St. James and then a Methodist Church. And Dad told us, while we were living on Tremont St., he pastored in Anniston, Alabama, where the bus burning was sometime later—in ‘61. And dad said, and showed me at one time, the revolver he kept, which he carried when he pastored in the South. And he pastored in a place in South Caroline—he name slips me now—and he pastored in Anniston. He commuted to Anniston by train from Massillon, Ohio, because my mother decided, with my father’s consent obviously, that the family would not go to his next appointment.
VL: They would continue to stay back in Massillon.
JL: And, in fact, they bought the first home there in Massillon, around that time. In the fourth grade, I’m in the home that my parents are buying at 33 Bruce Ave[?]. So, they bought a home. And initially, in the third grade, Dad went to pastor in New London, Ohio—did it only one year—in the Methodist Church. And all of us went with him, but my mother stayed in the house at Tremont St., sometimes with one of the daughters. So, dad ran the family in New London—seven or eight kids by himself. While she was in Massillon, they would visit back and forth. So, it was the year that we came back from New London that this incident happened with this child in the car that I discussed. We had just returned, and we were living at this new house.
VL: These churches where your father was a pastor, were they predominantly black churches?
JL: They were all black. There were cities where there had developed an appreciable black migration from the South, and where there would have been by that time Baptist and Methodist Churches, and probably some others—but mostly Baptist and Methodist in those cities.
VL: Now, I have a questions about…
JL: Now, may I just add another point to put this in context. My father did not disavow violence at any time. We kids did get spankings and whippings. I don’t know how many, and I don’t how many I got. I know of at least one that I remember, in the third or fourth grade.
VL: Did it do you any good, or did it do him any good?
JL: I don’t know. But when I started school from Tremont St., in Massillon… I’m not sure why this was the case, but I started school and I had to fight—neighborhood kids and non-neighborhood kids. And my mother and father had a family conflict over it because my mother said, “Jimmy, you’re not going to do that”; my dad said, “Yes, you have to go and fight.” And that was his attitude with my brothers and I. My mother wanted no… my brothers and I were not to fight each other. We could wrestle, and all that kind of stuff… play. But my father said, No, let them because that’ll help them get stronger.
VL: That seems to be a typically gendered kind of response…
JL: It looks to me like it might be.
VL: Looks that way. You know, the father says be manly, stand up. Your mother is being a bit more cautious, saying in effect that this kind of risk-taking is not really necessary.
JL: And one lunchtime… I mean, this house is on Tremont St and Lauren Andrews schools is up here across the river and across the railroad on a hillside up there. And one day at lunchtime, four or five boys—my classmates (I don’t know if they were all first or second graders; and I don’t remember if this was second grade or first grade, but I think mostly first grade)—followed me home at lunchtime; wanted me to fight a boy who I did not know because I did not, apparently, lose any fights with the first graders that I fought. And they conjured up a kid who was older than me…
VL: …set up an opponent…
JL: …Yeah, an opponent for me… to show this preacher’s kid, I suppose, although I don’t remember any of that. So, I come on home for lunch, which we did, and I don’t know where my brothers were at that time—well, no… they would have been at home. I don’t know where my sisters were because they were all at Lauren Andrews school… Daisy was just a year ahead of me. And as I got to the door, I went on up the steps in the Tremont St home, and they’re making all this noise about me fighting… My father hears it and comes to the door and meets at the door as I’m coming in, and says, “What’s going on Jimmy?” And I say, “They want me to fight and I don’t want to fight.” And he said, “No, go ahead. You go back and fight him.” How much of the story I told him, I don’t know, I don’t remember.
My mother, at this time, is also coming up through the living room where the front door is. And when she hears my Dad say, “Go on out and fight him Jimmy,” I remember distinctly my mother saying, “Oh no, Jacob,” which was his boyhood name. “Oh no, Jacob,” she said. But I went on back down the steps and fought that fight.
So, this wasn’t in a context of any pacifism or anything like that. I don’t even remember that word being used… But I made a commitment in that fourth grade experience that I would go with my mother… whatever that better way is. And therefore, I began to quite conscientiously practice turning the other cheek on insults, or standing and talking about it, or walking away on the playgrounds. If I couldn’t handle it, I’d walk away.
VL: Did you have any sense at all of questions of, let’s say when you are about eight to ten years—around this time—questions having to do with economic inequality? Was there any occasion there to talk about this with your parents?
JL: No… I don’t think so. I knew that things were tough because my father took what I learned later were WPA [Works Project Administration, a New Deal agency] jobs in order to supplement the family. He took those jobs, he took factory jobs, he took a security job in Massillon.
VL: His job as pastor did not pay him enough to feed a family of nine?
JL: Obviously it did not pay enough. So, he took other jobs. And not only that, but when we moved over to 33 Bruce Ave [?]—I don’t remember it on Tremont St.—but he built a push cart with big wheels—two wheels, as I remember. And we would push that cart into downtown Massillon. There was a paper mill on this street here, and we would push that cart and pick up cardboard paper and tie it and bundle it; cardboard boxes, tear them up, bind them and deliver them here for extra money. That’s how I made a little money, Bill made a little money that way with my father. We did that. And when they moved to 33 Bruce Ave [?], they owned almost an acre of land there, and they came out this way. And dad each year would arrange for a horse and plow to plow it… And we all would plant, and we all would pick stuff, we all would do the weeding. We all gathered as a family in the kitchen the canned food, which they would supplement by going to the farmers markets and bring in additional bushels of [produce]. And we would can them together, father and mother, all of us. Dad tightening the bottles, helping to cook and helping to supervise, and then taking them down to the basement and storing them. So, I remember all of that. I remember good experiences out in the field. In addition to that (the house), we had this and then an addition to that over here. He built a chicken coup, which I helped do. And we had chickens, got our own eggs—chicken and ducks. So, up through high school we had that… I mean, I remember the chicken pen and the chicken coup, and the chickens. So, we supplemented. Dad and my mother, they had a garden, they had a chicken coup.
VL: I’m assuming your mother did not work outside the home, at least not at this point. Or, did she?
JL: To the best of my knowledge, she did not. But, she was an expert, she was a seamstress, professional tradeswoman. And she did alterations over on Tremont St. After she got well, she did alterations for at least one, maybe more, dress shops for women. And she made my first suit, made me my second suit. She made my clothing. Every year, we were trying on new clothing that she had made for us for Christmas.
VL: Now, as I recall, I think you said that your mother had come from Jamaica. And she was eighteen years old.
JL: Yes, that’s what I know.
VL: So, did she pick up this skill as a seamstress after coming to the US, or…
JL: No, she was already a tradeswoman by that time; and where she’d gotten it from, I don’t know. But somehow… She was a very strong-willed person, but in the most gentle, loving ways. So, they managed to keep at one point eleven of us eating, sheltered, and all that kind of stuff that we needed.
VL: So, given your own extraordinarily strong commitment to the idea of nonviolence, and you sense of equality and justice in the world, I’m interested in what recollections you have of the events of late 1941 leading into 1942. So, you have Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941; the US enters into the war; and, from my standpoint, the most critical set of events after that, and that has to do with the incarceration of the Japanese Americans—the Executive Order passed by Roosevelt shortly after Pearl Harbor in 1942. You would have been about 13 to 14 years old at that time. Do you have distinct memories of any of that? Do you recall at all feeling that something was askance? That yes, here you have the US, you know… obviously trumpeting itself as the champion of liberty, freedom, all of that. On the other hand, there’s not only the situation of African Americans, but now you’ve got Japanese Americans being sent off to camps. Now, of course, most of these camps were on the West Coast, and this is some distance from Ohio, obviously…
JL: And there was at least one in Pennsylvania, but I learned all of that much later.
VL: But the bulk of them were in the western part of the country. What was your view of all of these things?
JL: Dorothy [Lawson’s sister, not to be confused with Lawson’s wife Dorothy] tells me that we discussed… Dad and Mom would discuss the lynchings that took place. Dorothy tells me that this went on at the dinner table. I have no recollection of that. We had negro newspapers in the house: the Pittsburgh Courier [1907-1966] and the Cleveland Call & Post [established in 1928]. I remember almost nothing about, if I can recall, those first years of the lynchings. My father in this period of time organized an urban league in Massillon. I didn’t know he was doing that. I went back thirty years later to do their thirtieth anniversary dinner—the urban league [chapter of the National Urban League, an African American civil rights organization founded in New York in 1910]. I discovered that wherever my father, wherever he went as a pastor, he would organize an NAACP chapter and/or an urban league or both. So, he was that kind of a man.
The most vivid experience I remember on Tremont St about this is that Dad would receive a phone call in the middle of the night and go out. And invariably, it would have been an incident that happened in the black community for which the police called him and asked for his accompanying them or helping them. And in at least one case it was a case of a black man who had been shot at least once. I don’t remember the stories that he told us when he came back, but I have that vivid memory of the phone ringing at the Tremont St house. And I do remember being shown the gun that he carried to Anniston, Alabama. And his going by train to Anniston. And I do remember his saying that he would carry the gun because if could not be a man without the gun, then he would use the gun. So, I remember that as well.
So, by the time I’m in junior high school, then, when Pearl Harbor was bombed—I do remember that, I remember the radio speeches. Oh, another thing I do remember at 33 Bruce Ave is—at Tremont St, rather—is the radio speeches by Franklin Roosevelt. I do remember that because we were all gathered in the living room around the radio, and would listen to those.
VL: I think they were called fireside chats, as well.
JL: Yes, that’s what they were called. And I do remember very clearly in those days his saying something like, “My fellow Americans.” And I felt, in those speeches… I felt included. I remember that. I felt that he was addressing me, and I was included in that. In high school… I went to high school in 1943, which was the Washington High School in Massillon, which was in walking distance, so I walked. I remember two or three things about some of that that’s connected to this. One of them is I went out for speech and debate, and therefore was given the assignment of going to the public library weekly, and reading all the periodicals that were available… as a class assignment. So, it is in those periods that I read of the wars and became acquainted with New York Times, Chicago Tribune, Christian Science Monitor, Atlantic Magazine, Harper’s Magazine, The Nation, Saturday Review, and whatever else.. the Saturday Evening Post (and sometimes my parents would have that one anyway). That’s when I started getting acquainted with stuff and reading all kinds of stuff, and of course read about the war and sometimes imagined myself in guerilla warfare in that period, in high school. I remember that. And I remember clearly the death of Franklin Roosevelt and a class discussion about it.
VL: Did you know anything about the incarceration of Japanese Americans?
JL: I do not recall that. Nor do I remember reading about the A. Philip Randolph Washington March threat that he made in ‘42 in the Executive Order. But I do recall very clearly my sisters, as they graduated, they all went into defense plants. Three of them went to the Paterson Air Force Base in Dayton, Ohio as they graduated.
VL: Right. That was the point when American women entered into the workforce in very large numbers… during WWII.
JL: That’s right. And I had at least three sisters who went into that work program—those plants. So, they were not home; they were living in Dayton in my high school years, except for Dorothy who was married by this time and living in Massillon.
VL: Dorothy is your older sister?
JL: My older sister, yeah.
VL: How much older is she?
JL: She is seven years older. And she became secretary of the Urban League. In about my junior year in high school, she was the secretary because I would come by the Urban League office. We played ping pong, then she and I would walk home together. So, I remember that. But incidents of racism in those years, I don’t remember. I do remember that the debate team of which I was a member, and some other speech team that I would be a member of… I do remember that. We had to be circumspect about it because when we travelled, I learned that invariably our debate coaches, speech coaches would pay the way for me as a black boy with my classmates at different hotels. How much of that they did, I don’t know, except that I know we didn’t have any incidents.
VL: But you were on the school’s debate team?
JL: Oh, yes. And speech, too. We had those oratorical contests, and I did that two or three years too. I was on the debate team all through high school.
VL: So, you’ve had skills as an orator since you were a child, then?
JL: Apparently. At least I got some training in high school. High school was very important to me.
VL: And perhaps having your father as a pastor also had something to do with that.
JL: Of course.
VL: I mean in the black church that’s been critical, of course.
JL: Oh, yeah. That’s always been true. In any case, I do remember all my years in Massillon as fundamentally peaceful years. And as I look back upon the incidents of being called nigger, I see that … as my wrestling with “who am I? what am I?” Am I nigger in the light of the prejudice and racism or am I a man? Am I a human being? And that was also fortified by my parents, who used to tell us all the time, you are a child of God, you’re my son, you are a child of God so you act with dignity; you act in a humane, humanly fashion; you act natural—don’t let your behavior get torn apart by whatever stuff you face. So, that was a very important part of my childhood and youth and teenage years of learning from my parents.