Nonviolence in the American college air: Gandhi and the Education of James M. Lawson

Part III of The Birth of a Nonviolent Activist

In this, the final excerpt from the second half of our first conversation in December 2013, which is reproduced here in public interest and as a birthday tribute to Rev. Lawson, who turned 92 on September 22, we discuss his college years and in particular how he fostered his interest in Gandhi.  As was mentioned in the previous excerpt, Gandhi’s name appeared frequently in the African American press; indeed, there were lengthy articles in virtually all the black-owned newspapers which discussed the struggle for freedom in India, the possibility of raising a “Negro Gandhi” in the US, and the difficulties of adopting Gandhi’s methods in the US.  In our later conversations, some of these questions were taken up for discussion; in this excerpt, Lawson describes mainly how he came to Gandhi’s work, his embrace of nonviolence and disavowal of pacifism (with which nonviolence is often confused), the manner in which Gandhi’s name was being circulated in certain circles, and the place of some key figures who appeared as exponents of Gandhi’s ideas in the United States.  Among the latter were A. J. Muste, a Dutch-born American clergyman associated with the anti-war and civil rights movements who served as the executive director of the Fellowship of Reconciliation (FOR) from 1940-53 and once famously submitted Thoreau’s essay on ‘The Duty of Civil Disobedience’ along with his 1040 tax form, and Richard Gregg, a now somewhat obscure figure whose book, The Power of Nonviolence, is a sadly neglected treatise of political resistance that literally served as the handbook for two generations of Americans interested in nonviolent political activism.  A 1960 reprint of the book carried a foreword by Martin Luther King Jr. Unlike Muste, Gregg had a deep familiarity with India and he lived there for many years; he maintained his interest in India even in later years, writing a book called The Philosophy of Indian Economic Development (1958).

VL:  Through these WWII years until you graduated from school—I think you said you graduated in 1946—were you aware of the anti-colonial movement in India and elsewhere?

JL: I only remember some of that vaguely.  Gandhi was in the black papers which were read at home.  I’m sure he was on the front pages of the New York Times from time to time. But I don’t remember specifics. I don’t have a recollection specifically.  For me, Gandhi really came alive in 1947, as a freshman in college, when I was introduced by A.J. Muste to his autobiography.  And I immediately went out and found it and began to read it.

VL: And you were a freshman at which college?

JL: Baldwin Wallace College.

VL: Which is where?

JL: Which is in that same region of Ohio… maybe it’s twenty miles from Oberlin, almost in a straight line from Massillon.

VL: Is this a predominantly black college or historically black college?

JL: No, this is a United Methodist school.  Actually, it was founded by the Methodist Church, and was a small liberal arts college, which is still there—calls itself Baldwin Wallace University now because it has several graduates…

VL: Was it founded largely to train people for becoming pastors and so on?

JL: That, probably, was one of the major motivations.  But the Methodist Church had had by this time a long history in helping to create schools and colleges.  And so, they had done this right straight across the US.

VL: But this is not co-educational, is it?

JL: Yes, it’s co-educational.

VL: Was it coed from the outset?

JL: Yes. Oh, yes. It was after Oberlin… but Oberlin was the first coed school in the US—started as a coed school; also, started as a school—and I learned that history, too, in time—also started as a school that accepted Negros from the beginning.  The coed and Negros were two of the things they put into the very opening days of Oberlin.  That was 1830.  That was very, very early as I remember.

VL: But the college that you went to, was it reasonably well integrated, then?

JL: I tend to use the term about these places where I grew up as desegregated.  There was no black professor at Baldwin Wallace.  There were athletes, some of great national fame. And I thought, at the time, it was a good climate for me to be in.  And I feel benefited from it.  But as I look back, I do call it desegregated rather than integrated. 

VL: So, no black faculty…

JL: …there was no black faculty of any kind.  There was no black coach, and at that time when I was there, from ‘47 to ‘52, there were approximately 200 black students out of maybe 1800.

VL: So, the bulk of the students were white, and predominantly male, I’m assuming, as well?

JL: Yes, but there were… there were female dorms on campus because it was a residential college—it was a residential college.  So, there were dorms for women and dorms for men, which was typical in the forties. So, it had a visible coed population, a visible women’s population.

VL: But you graduated in ‘46 and started in ‘47, so there was a year that you were…

JL: Yeah, I did a year of work. I worked in Massillon at retail stores. I worked at a five-and-ten store [that is, an inexpensive retail store where items were generally priced at 5 and 10 cents], and then at a JC Penny, ostensibly to save up for college, though I had scholarship offers.  And I don’t know if I did that very well.

VL: So, you started as freshman in ‘47, and had you decided at that point what you were going to study, or was it going to be a general Liberal Arts…

JL: No, I considered myself going into the ministry.  So, I studied as a pre-ministerial student, but I early on planned to major in sociology and psychology because I thought that would be a better place for me to understand how to be engaged in a local church as a pastor.  I was committed from an early age to becoming a pastor.  It firmed up in high school, and firmed up further in college.

VL: And it was in your freshman year itself that you said you either met or heard A.J. Muste?

JL: I heard A. J. Muste and met him, and we became friends.

VL: He had come to your college?

JL: Yes. I mean, at that time, many colleges in the US thought that it was very important to have various lecturers come through… and sometimes these were sponsored by a department. In his case, he was sponsored by the department of history.  And there were at least two conscientious objectors in that history department—one man who had spent time in conscientious objector camp during WWII.  And then, the head of the department was a Dr. Penner [most likely Professor Richard Penner, a conscientious objector whose case file is in the Swarthmore College Peace Collection] who was an ardent critic of all the wars.  I had him for European history.  He was the only historian I met in that period who was a critic of the wars as wars, as a methodology.  And he was a stringent critic.  But I never had any other historian like that.

VL: So, Muste had been invited by the department of history…

JL: That’s right. He was executive director of the Fellowship of Reconciliation, and he toured campuses regularly.  And that’s when I found out that there was a chapter of the FOR at Baldwin Wallace itself, in the city…  And that’s when I began to get acquainted with him. And I joined the FOR almost immediately as I met A. J. Muste and heard him speak.

A.J. Muste, center, sits with fellow activists Miriam Levine, left, and Judith Malina at the Atomic Energy Commission in August 1963. Source: War Resisters League.

VL: So, this would be about late 1947.

JL: This would have been in September or October cause it was in the early part of the quarter.

VL: Oh, so it’s very soon after you arrived at the college?

JL: Soon after I arrived, I got history.  As a history student, I’m told to come to this lecture that was being sponsored by the department of history. So, I go that afternoon and it’s A. J. Muste. So, I hear him and I’m profoundly impressed and moved by what I hear. So, I go up afterwards and introduce myself, and we talk and we recognize a kinship, and we became friends.

VL: And Muste had occasion to speak about Gandhi in the lecture, or did you hear about Gandhi in private conversations?

JL: No, as I remember, he talked about Gandhi and nonviolence as possibly the only legitimate criticism of WWII.  But his major thesis was, which I have never forgotten, that part of the problem with WWII was who would tell the victor of the war that war had problems, and that the decisions after the war could be problematic.  (This is ‘47 now.) He poses the question that we know who the defeated were, but is there a way in which the victors could also be defeated… because they’d become more like the enemies they were destroying.

VL:  That’s right. Profoundly Gandhian way of thinking.

JL:  Oh yeah. He was influenced by Gandhi.  And that’s the place where I heard, to the best of my recollection, in a fashion so that it stuck, of nonviolence.  And that was one of the reasons I picked up the book… Immediately.

VL: And you went out and got Gandhi’s autobiography.

JL: That’s right. And then, as I recall also, Muste might have introduced me to The Power of Nonviolence, by Richard Gregg… because I did get a copy of it. And I know that Muste, in that speech, introduced me to the term pacifism because then I began thinking about pacifism for myself—not in any classes but as part of what I was reading as a student.

Richard Gregg with Scott Nearing: two advocates of ‘voluntary simplicity’ and organic farming. From

VL: It’s interesting you mention Richard Gregg because, frankly, except to really students of nonviolence, his name is almost unknown in the US today.  I mean, when I mention him to people in my department among colleagues, even those in American history, you draw a complete blank. But, in fact, I remember reading James Farmer’s autobiography and he points out there—I think that’s where I read it—that among nonviolent activists, even in the late-fifties and early-sixties in the US, Gregg’s Power of Nonviolence was the first book on the list.  That nonviolent activists of his generation…

JL: Well, it was on FOR reading lists when I got…

VL: …thought that this text was above King, in fact.

JL: Oh, yes.  Well, Farmer was before King. But Power of Nonviolence, by Gregg was on every reading list from the FOR—from the magazine of the FOR—and probably also in the American Friends Service Committee, maybe. Although I am not sure that they were as eager about Gandhi as was the FOR. But clearly, FOR introduced me, through Muste or through the magazine, to the Autobiography of Gandhi, to biographies of Gandhi by Louis Fischer, by E. Stanley Jones, by John Haynes Holmes. So, I read all of those in that period, and then also they introduced me to a book called The New Testament Basis of Pacifism, by G.H.C. Macgregor, which I still have, and which began to push me to look at the Bible from the point of view of nonviolence and from the point of view of pacifism.

VL: You read Gandhi’s autobiography, then, sometime let’s say in late 1947—and I think that maybe next time around we’ll begin with your recollection, if any, of Gandhi’s assassination, which is just a couple of months later on 30 January 1948—but do you recall reading Gandhi’s autobiography? Can you remember how you felt when you first read Gandhi’s autobiography?

JL: My Experiments with Truth: of seeing life as a laboratory for learning and experimentation and study and for seeing life as an opportunity to change the old and create the new.  Those were the two major themes.  And of course the word, the concept itself of nonviolence.  So, I began among other things to talk about myself as a nonviolent practitioner rather than as a pacifist… because nonviolence to me was more robust. It was also more what I had been practicing… because within my first year at Baldwin Wallace and participating in FOR, I was told by folks (a variety of people in that campus community) that I was too aggressive, I was too active.  I gather, in fact, that some voices in the administration did not like the fact that I emerged, from almost the first day I walked on campus, as the leader in the campus community… because I went places, I went to concerts, I went to lots of stuff in the process. And it wasn’t that I was any kind of a militant, but I was just acting from my own juices of consciousness.  And that, of course, happened to me twice: it happened at Baldwin Wallace; it also happened at Vanderbilt.  I was in fact told at Baldwin Wallace, in a private session… I was told by the chairman of the religion department that I could go as far as I could go in the Church or in the nation if I was simply not so aggressive.  In my judgment, what he actually meant was that you’re acting too much like a normal human being on campus: you’re studying, you’re talking, you’re reading. By accident I was always a good student. I don’t remember my mother and father telling me to be a good student. I guess they had to, but I was always a good student, as I was always a good musician, as I was always a good athlete.  Those three elements in my life were very important elements as I grew up as a child.

VL: And I’m thinking of Paul Robeson now, but that again is a subject for another conversation.


3 thoughts on “Nonviolence in the American college air: Gandhi and the Education of James M. Lawson

  1. My favorite quote in this is “there a way in which the victors could also be defeated… because they’d become more like the enemies they were destroying.” Oftentimes, as aforementioned, the victor of a war does not think about the repercussions the war had; they only think about the mere fact that they won, and who they beat lost. If a war was fought on ideals, which WWII was, then one would think that even after the war ended, ideals and morals would still exist; ideally, nations would look to how many innocent deaths were caused rather than just the notion of victory.


  2. In the non-violent resistance of modern society, Gandhi’s thought still has a strong influence. His ideas not only had a great influence on the Indian people’s resistance to the British aggressors in the past, but also had a profound impact on the Asian and African people striving for national independence, the black American movement against racial discrimination and the modern international political struggle. Gandhi’s name appeared frequently in the African American press; indeed, there were lengthy articles in virtually all the black-owned newspapers which discussed the struggle for freedom in India, the possibility of raising a “Negro Gandhi” in the US, and the difficulties of adopting Gandhi’s methods in the US.
    Tingyu Liu


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