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RevJamesLawsonAtVanderbilt

 The Reverend James M. Lawson of Los Angeles is quite likely the greatest living exponent of nonviolent resistance in the United States, and he turns a glorious 90 on September 22nd.  This is as good a time as any to pay tribute to a person who has the distinction, though it has never been acknowledged as such, of having been a dedicated and rigorous practitioner of nonviolence for longer (nearly seven decades, by my reckoning) than anyone else in recorded American history.

Lawson&King

Most scholarly histories of the American Civil Rights movement have recognized the distinct contribution of Rev. Lawson, presently Pastor Emeritus of the Holman United Methodist Church in Los Angeles’ Adams District, as one of the most influential architects of the movement.  In his dense, indeed exhaustive, narrative of the Freedom Rides, Raymond Arsenault recounts how James Lawson, who commenced his nonviolent training workshops in the late 1950s, gathered what would become a stellar group of young African American men and women—Diane Nash, John Lewis, Bernard Lafayette, John Bevel, among others—around him in Nashville.  Martin Luther King Jr. himself acknowledged Lawson’s Nashville group as “the best organized and most disciplined in the Southland,” and King and other activists were “dazzled” by Lawson’s “concrete visions of social justice and ‘the beloved community’” (Freedom Riders: 1961 and the Struggle for Racial Justice, Oxford UP, 2006, p. 87).

RevLawson&RevKingJamesMeredithMarch

Rev. Lawson (in sunglasses, front) with Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King and others at the James Meredith March Against Fear, Mississippi.

Andrew Young similarly speaks of Lawson in glowing terms as the chief instigator of the sit-ins and “as an expert on Gandhian philosophy” who “was instrumental in organizing our Birmingham nonviolent protest workshops”; Lawson was, as Young avers, “an old friend of the movement” when, in 1968, he invited King to Memphis to speak in support of the sanitation workers’ strike (see An Easy Burden: The Civil Rights Movement and the Transformation of America, HarperCollins Publishers, 1996).  Most strikingly, the chapter on the campaign for civil rights in the American South in Peter Ackerman and Jack Duvall’s global history of nonviolent resistance, A Force More Powerful (St. Martin’s Press, 2000), is focused not on King, James Farmer, A. Philip Randolph, or Roy Wilkins, to mention four of those who have been styled among the “Big Six”, but rather unexpectedly revolves around the critical place of Lawson’s extraordinary nonviolence training workshops—most recently featured in the feature film, Lee Daniels’ The Butler—in giving rise to what became some of the most characteristic expressions of nonviolent resistance, among them the sit-ins, the freedom rides, and the strategy of packing jails with dissenters.  Ackerman and Luvall echo the sentiments of Lafayette, who credited Lawson with creating “a nonviolent academy, equivalent to West Point”; they pointedly add that though Lawson was “a man of faith, he approached the tasks of nonviolent conflict like a man of science” (pp. 316-17).

LawsonMugShotMississippiRiderArrest1961

A mug shot of Rev. James M. Lawson after he was arrested in Mississippi for his role in the Freedom Rides.  Source:  https://breachofpeace.com/blog/?p=18

It is no exaggeration to suggest that King derived much of his understanding of Gandhi from Bayard Rustin and Rev. Lawson, though most histories mention only Rustin in this regard.  John D’Emilio’s exhaustive biography, Lost ProphetThe Life and Times of Bayard Rustin (New York:  Free Press, 2003) affirms what has long been known about King, namely that he “knew nothing” about Gandhian nonviolence even as he was preparing to launch the Montgomery Bus Boycott.  D’Emilio states that “Rustin’s Gandhian credentials were impeccable”, and it fell upon Rustin to initiate the process that would transform King “into the most illustrious American proponent of nonviolence in the twentieth century.”  Though Rustin’s command over the Gandhian literature is scarcely in question, the more critical role of Lawson in bringing King to a critical awareness of the Gandhian philosophy of satyagraha, and more generally in inflecting Christian traditions of nonviolence with the teachings of Gandhi and other vectors of the Indian tradition, has been obscured.

Uniquely among the great figures of the Civil Rights Movement, as I noted in an essay penned last year, Lawson spent three formative years in his early twenties in central India.  As a college student in the late 1940s, Lawson discovered Christian nonviolence, most emphatically in the person of A. J. Muste, who was dubbed “the No. 1 US Pacifist” by Time in 1939 and would go on to be at the helm of every major movement of resistance to war from the 1920s until the end of the Vietnam War.  Lawson was a conscientious objector during the Korean War and spent over a year in jail; as Andrew Young remarks, “His stand on the Korean War was courageous and unusual in the African-American community” (An Easy Burden, p. 126).  Lawson spoke to me about his year in jail at considerable length during the course of our fourteen meetings from 2013-16 during which we conversed for something like 26 hours, and in future essays I shall turn to some of these conversations.  Following his release from jail, Lawson, who had trained as a Methodist Minister, left for India where for three years he served as an athletic coach at Hislop College, Nagpur, originally founded in 1883 as a Presbyterian school.  He deepened his understanding of Gandhi and met at length with several of Gandhi’s key associates, including Vinoba Bhave.  When he returned to the US in June 1956, Lawson uniquely embodied within himself two strands that would converge in the Civil Rights movement:  Christian nonviolence and Gandhian satyagraha.  Lawson was never in doubt that satyagraha was to be viewed as a highly systematic inquiry into, and practice of, nonviolent resistance.

Strangely, notwithstanding Reverend Lawson’s place in the Civil Rights Movement and American public life more generally, very little systematic work has been done on his life and, in particular, on his six decades of experience as a theoretician and practitioner of nonviolent resistance.  It is worth recalling that Lawson was a student of Gandhian ideas and more generally of the literature of nonviolence several years before King’s ascent into public prominence; five decades after the assassination of King, he regularly conducts workshops on nonviolence .  No American life, in this respect, is comparable to his.

I shall be writing on Rev. Lawson often, I hope, in the weeks ahead. Meanwhile, I offer him my warmest felicitations on his 90th birthday!

 

For previous essays on Rev. Lawson on this blog, see:

The Nashville Sit-ins:

https://vinaylal.wordpress.com/2017/09/23/the-nashville-sit-ins-the-workshop-of-nonviolence-in-jim-crow-america/

and “Martin Luther King and the Challenge of Nonviolence”:

https://vinaylal.wordpress.com/2018/01/15/martin-luther-king-and-the-challenge-of-nonviolence/

 

 

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Part III of The Passions of a March–and of Gun Culture

Seventeen students’ lives were taken at the Parkland school shooting and they could have, after the customary eulogies and testimonies to their lives, ended up as only as statistics.  However, the aftermath of the massacre has made the story of the Parkland school shooting somewhat unusual in contemporary American experience.  Rather than turning the gun upon himself in one final act of desperation as most shooters have done, Cruz allowed himself to be taken captive; perhaps, “his story” will be heard, though it is doubtful that anything particularly striking will emerge beyond the by-now familiar narrative of a white boy in his late teens or early twenties who routinely engaged in slurs against Muslims, black people, and Jews, sported swastikas and was drawn to neo-Nazi videos on the internet, and appears to have thought of white women who had entered into inter-racial relationships as traitors to their race.  The shooters, whether at school or elsewhere, have been, as I have pointed out previously, predominantly white; their admirers, drawn from the ranks of those who harbor a fascination for guns and are evidently advocates of racial purity, are also overwhelmingly white.  In another piece of Americana, as Cruz remains confined in prison while awaiting trial, he is being inundated with fan mail from across the country, with a few stray pieces from Europe, mostly from girls, women, and grown men.  His interlocutors include mature women who have sent Cruz photos of themselves in lingerie, as well as young women who have written him love letters or are solicitous of his welfare [Flores 2018].

More significantly, however, it is the resolve of the students of the Parkland school to bring the subject of gun control to the attention of the nation that has differentiated this shooting from many others.  Just days into the shooting, some of the school’s students had already become emissaries for a cause, appearing as spokespersons for gun control at other schools, on news channels, in town hall meetings, and at community forums.  Emma Gonzalez, a senior at Marjory Stoneman Douglas who was raised in Parkland, emerged three days after the shooting as the face of the student-led gun control movement.  At a gun control rally in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, she ended her speech with the rallying call, “We call B.S.”  Emma, like the other students, had had enough of politicians informing families of victims and traumatized students that their “thoughts and prayers” were with them.  She had heard far too many politicians piously vowing, time after time, to make the country’s schools safe from gun violence, and then unabashedly proceeding to collect donations from the NRA for their re-election campaigns.  She now knew what it meant to have to cower in fear:  on the day of the shooting, she was in the school auditorium when the alarm sounded; though she sought to make good her exit, she and other students were held in the auditorium for two hours before the police arrived and unlocked the doors.  On February 20th, Emma and other students met with state legislators in Florida at Tallahassee and watched them vote down debate on a gun control bill.  The day after, Emma let the NRA and the politicians who stand by it have an earful: “You’re either funding the killers, or you’re standing for the children.”

On March 14th, one month to the day the massacre of the innocents took place, students from across the country staged a school walkout termed “Enough!”  They would be assisted in this endeavor by some of the organizations and activists in the “Women’s March” that had descended upon Washington the day after Donald Trump’s inauguration as President on 20 January 2017.  Timed at 10 AM, students in perhaps as many as 3,000 schools quit their classrooms, while staying within the school grounds, for 17 minutes in memory of their 17 peers who were killed in Parkland and to signal their impatience with prevarication by legislators in initiating gun control measures.   But all this served as a prelude to the far more ambitious and purposeful “March for Our Lives” on March 24th, when a million students gathered in Washington, and several hundred cities across the country, to demand legislative action in Congress, and state legislative assemblies, that would put into place more stringent measures to regulate the sale of guns; some, taking a more complex political view of the matter, called attention to the gun violence that has blighted urban communities around the country and taken an especially heavy toll of African Americans, Chicanos, and even bystanders. There, again, was Emma Gonzalez, this time standing forth, mostly in heavy silence, for 6 minutes 20 seconds—as long as it took for Cruz to snuff out many lives and maim as many—before concluding her speech with a call for action before “someone else is shot.”

The day belonged not to Emma Gonzalez alone.  Seventeen-year old Edna Chavez recalled how, one evening three years ago, she heard what sounded like fireworks outside her South Los Angeles home, not realizing that her older brother had been gunned down in gang violence.  “I lost more than my brother that day,” she told the Washington crowd, “I lost my hero.”  At eleven years, fifth-grader Naomi Wadler took the podium and spoke forcefully for nearly four minutes on the disproportionate impact of gun violence upon black women.  Let us pause over her remarks: “I am here to acknowledge and represent the African American girls whose stories don’t make the front page of every national newspaper, whose stories don’t lead on the evening news. I represent the African American women who are victims of gun violence, who are simply statistics instead of vibrant, beautiful girls full of potential.”

Wadler displayed, for someone her age, remarkable poise; and she evidently has more political awareness and acuity than one encounters among most politicians.  Much more so than school shootings, it is the violence on American streets that has destroyed families, decimated entire neighborhoods, and condemned generations of black men to prison terms and lives of destitution.  Once the gunfire has died down, it is largely women—mothers, daughters, sisters, wives, girlfriends—who are left to mourn, pick up the pieces of their lives, and—as they say—carry on.  America has little interest in resolving addressing gun violence:  it makes some streets unsafe, but the rigid segregation that is pervasive around the country ensures that, for the most part, this violence does not spill over into white neighborhoods.  In any case, much of white America has long been reconciled to the idea that a slight degree of discomfort can be tolerated, so long as gun violence does not begin to tear apart their own communities.  School shootings have, we may say, broken that barrier.

(to be continued)

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The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. whose birth anniversary is being celebrated today, was all of 39 years old when he was assassinated in 1968.  Most political careers are far from having been established at that somewhat tender age:  the man that had King had looked up to, Mohandas Gandhi, had made something of a name for himself when he was forty, but Gandhi was at that time still living in South Africa and no one could have anticipated that within a decade he would have been transformed into the leader of the Indian independence struggle.  King was only in his late 20s when, perhaps somewhat fortuitously, the Montgomery Bus Boycott of 1956 launched him onto the national stage; thereafter, his position as the preeminent face of the Civil Rights Movement was never in doubt.  This is all the more surprising considering that King was scarcely stepping into a political vacuum:  there was already a tradition of black political leadership and several of those who would become close associates of King had developed local and regional constituencies well before he arrived on the scene.

King has been the subject of several essays on this blog over the last few years.  I have also had occasion to make reference to the extraordinary career of Reverend James M. Lawson, who initiated a nonviolent training workshop that would shape the careers of an entire generation of Civil Rights leaders such as John Lewis, Diane Nash, James Bevel, and many others.  Rev. Lawson settled in Los Angeles in the early 1970s and was until a few years ago Pastor of the Holmes Methodist Church in the Adams district of Los Angeles.  He remains firmly committed, at the age of 88, to the idea and practice of nonviolent resistance, and at the national level and particularly in the Los Angeles area his activism in the cause of social justice is, if I may use a cliché, the gold standard for aspiring activists. Over the last several years, over twelve lengthy meetings, we have conversed at length—26 hours on tape, to be precise—on the Civil Rights Movement, histories of nonviolent resistance, the Christian tradition of nonviolence, the state of black America, the notion of the Global South, and much else.

 

Lawson&King

Rev. James Lawson discusses his phone call inviting Martin Luther King Jr. to Memphis, the meeting at his church on April 3 and plans to go forward with a march with or without the court injunction in place.   Copyright:  Jeff McAdory/The Commercial Appeal.  Source: http://www.commercialappeal.com/videos/news/2017/01/12/rev.-james-lawson-recalls-inviting-martin-luther-king-jr.-memphis/96495746/

What follows is a fragment, what I think is a remarkable piece, of one lengthy conversation, which took place on 31 January 2014, revolving around some of the difficulties that King encountered, the circumstances of his political ascendancy, the so-called “failure” of the Albany campaign, and the challenge posed to him by one white supremacist, the Sheriff of Albany, Laurie Pritchett.  The fragment, which begins as it were mid-stream, has been only very lightly edited.  I have neither annotated the conversation nor removed some of the rough edges.

Vinay:              At this time, we’re talking about the Easter weekend 1960.  I’ve read in various accounts that there was a bit of impatience with King on the part of a number of people; they thought he was not radical enough, he was too cautious.

Rev. Lawson:   I think that’s reading into it.

Vinay:              You think it’s reading into it?

Rev. Lawson:   It’s also something else.  Such a view does not understand how an organization espousing nonviolence comes into being.

Vinay:              Can you say more?

Rev. Lawson:   How the person who’s become the singular spokesperson in the country for Negroes.

Vinay:              Was he at that time?

Rev. Lawson:   Oh, absolutely.

Vinay:              Already? In early 1960?

Rev. Lawson:   Oh, yes.

Vinay:              Undisputedly so.

Rev. Lawson:   Undisputedly so.  I watched it.

Vinay:              Yeah.

Rev. Lawson:   I saw some of the difficulties that he went through. He had a hard time because he was not supposed to become [the leader], he was not supposed to be.  Traditional leadership in the Negro community, in the political community, did not anticipate a young man, 26 years of age, emerging at the head of an effective bus boycott that shakes the nation and the system and spreads around the world.  He was not the chosen one.  I watched this in ’58, ’59, ’60, ’61, ’62.  The NAACP [National Association for the Advancement of Colored People] leadership said that mass action is not the way.  They said it then.

Vinay:              Yes.

Rev. Lawson:   They said that legal action, clean up the constitution—that is the way.  King actually as he emerged and saw what was happening with the bus boycott—he proposed to the NAACP a special direct action department of work.  They rejected that idea, and said no to that.

It’s under that aegis, then, that King starts in ’57 meeting with other clergy and then organizes the Southern Christian Leadership Conference [SCLC].  Martin King had enough wisdom and humility that he wanted to add this dimension of life to the work of the NAACP, and the NAACP said very clearly no, that’s not possible.  That’s excluded from these [academic] books.  Worst of all, and excluded from these books, is the idea that a social campaign or movement is a social organism.  It does not arrive fully structured, fully ideologically framed.  It does not arrive with tactics in place.

Vinay:              Yes, it’s a process.

Rev. Lawson:   It’s a process. Especially it’s a process because all of the people who are attracted to it, I mean at least I my case I know, and Martin’s case I know, this was something brand new.  We had not had any experience like that in our own limited backgrounds.  I said boldly in ’59, I don’t know what I’m doing, but I’m doing it.

Vinay:              I find your phrase “He was not the Chosen One” striking.

Rev. Lawson:   Yeah.

Vinay:              I think that perhaps it was fortuitous that Martin King was in Montgomery rather than in a place with traditional Black Leadership.

Rev. Lawson:   In Atlanta.

Vinay:              In Atlanta, because that would have been an obstruction.

Rev. Lawson:   What these scholars have no inkling about is that when Martin in ’57 organizes the Southern Christian Leadership Conference with the help of Bayard Rustin and a number of other people, and creates SCLC; when he sets up and begins to set up the office in Atlanta, and knows that eventually he’s going to leave Montgomery and go to Atlanta to work, Martin King has made a commitment to himself.  That commitment is, ‘I’m going back to Atlanta, I will be a co-pastor with my father, but I am not going to initiate any program in Atlanta.’

Why?  Because Atlanta has an organized, traditional Black Leadership group who gather once a month maybe; business, churches and clergy, artists, presidents of colleges, and they talk about their situation together.  They talk about every situation that’s coming up in Atlanta.  His father is a member of that group.  King knows that if he initiates something in Atlanta, he will have to deal with that traditional Black leadership and he does not want to.  Julian Bond and Lonnie King, and John Mac, and Maryann Wright Edelman are people who are students in Atlanta at this time.  They go to King to persuade King to take part in the sit-in campaign against riches [?] in downtown Atlanta.  King is hesitant.  He has probation problems legally, but that’s only one of them.

King’s major problem is that if he steps out in Atlanta, he will bypass Black traditional leadership.  That will stir up the hornets in Atlanta.  Now the students do not understand that.  I’m not even sure that I recognized it at that time. I mean I discovered this in the ‘50s and ‘60s, but when I discover it, I’m pretty sure is ’60, ’61, ’62, ’63, not in those first months; these books don’t understand that.

King wants to be in the sit-in campaign, I have no doubt about that.  Ralph Abernathy had no doubt about that.  Others close to him had no about that.  He would prefer to be with them without reservation, but he has to deal with the fact that when he does it, he’s got all the criticism in the Black traditional leadership who are already upset with this young whippersnapper who they helped to raise, who’s coming back to work in Atlanta, and will eclipse all of them.

Vinay:              Yes, all of them, right.

Rev. Lawson:   Now none of that is in these books.

Vinay:              Yeah.  Again, in many respects this story is rather similar [Lawson laughs, in anticipation] to you-know-who.  Mohandas.

Rev. Lawson:   Yes.  Mohandas K.

Vinay:              Gandhi, yes.  Mohandas K.

Rev. Lawson:   That’s right.

Vinay:              He comes out of Ahmedabad; much of the political leadership is based in Bombay, Calcutta.

Rev. Lawson:   Yeah.

Vinay:              He’s able to in fact completely change the landscape.

Rev. Lawson:   He comes to India and he is the best known Indian in India.

Vinay:              Yeah.

Rev. Lawson:   He hasn’t paid none of the price of living in India of the previous 15 years.

Vinay:              Yup, and he hadn’t paid any of the dues as they would have said.

Rev. Lawson:   Exactly, Exactly, and yet here he is.  Exactly.  You know that seems to be really the case when you have a social movement that’s going to set itself against the status quo of oppressions and tyrannies.  It takes a different leadership in the first place to really do it, I think.  In the second place that leadership immediately gets involved with the traditional leadership that’s been around.  You create a whole new dynamic that’s not there before that.

Vinay:              Let’s take apropos of this discussion, let’s take what is generally viewed, now your perspective might be different—that’s why I think it would be interesting to talk about it—let’s take the illustration of what is supposed to be one of Martin King’s more difficult moments.  Still in the early ‘60s we are speaking about, and here I’m referring to what happens in Albany, Georgia.  Now as you know very well the movement in Albany commences without King initially.

Rev. Lawson:   Yeah, it’s locally started.

Vinay:              Right yeah.  It’s locally started, locally initiated.

Rev. Lawson:   That’s right, it’s locally started.

Vinay:              SNCC is not particularly keen on having King there, and he’s eventually invited by the local businessmen.

Rev. Lawson:   By Anderson who is president of the movement in Albany.   I can’t think of his first name, but he’s a doctor.

Vinay:              Right.

Rev. Lawson:   He’s a well-known doctor who is concerned for these changes and lends himself to it, and gets involved in helping make it happen.

Vinay:              Right, so one perspective on what happened in Albany is the following.  It’s been argued by a number of people; it’s also by the way shown in [the documentary] Eyes on the Prize; and is mentioned in quite a few of the scholarly works have delved into this.  Generally, the view is that this was a failure for King, what happened in Albany.  The perspective then generally amounts to the following.

Number one, that there King met, and the civil rights movement met, its’ match in Laurie Pritchett, who was the sheriff, I think, in Albany.  Apparently, Pritchett had studied what had happened in India.  In fact, this little clip in Eyes on the Prize, I was very surprised when I saw this clip where he’s interviewed, and he says I’m looking at what Gandhi did in India because that’s what these chaps are doing over here.  This whole idea of filling up the jails, apparently what he did was he decided that he was going to spread out the prisoners across jails …

Pritchett&King

Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. is arrested by Albany’s Chief of Police, Laurie Pritchett, after praying at City Hall, on July 27, 1962.  Source:  AP Photo.

 

Rev. Lawson:   Yes, I know the story.

Vinay:              That Pritchett himself is now using the weapons of nonviolence as it were against the resistors themselves, right? That’s one part of the story.  The other part of the story as I have encountered it, is that King comes in and that he misjudges the situation considerably.  Ultimately, he has to sort of leave in defeat from Albany because the ultimate objectives of the movement were not met there.  Now what is your perspective on what happened in Albany?

Pritchett&King2

Albany Police Chief Laurie Pritchett & Martin Luther King, Jr.  Source:

Rev. Lawson:   Well, in the first place, I don’t think academics have the right to go and critique it when it is an emerging social process and organism, in which none of the people in Albany have done it before; they have limited experience; where the fledgling SCLC is still trying to organize its staff.  It has an executive director who’s a good man, and a smart man, Wyatt T. Walker, but it’s still fledgling.  When they yield to the invitation from the movement in Albany, and Dr. Anderson, they go in.

There are a handful of SNCC [Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee] people who are operating in the area as well, who have helped to launch the movement themselves.  How this takes place I think is greatly overlooked.   One of the key figures in that business was Charles Gerard.  Good man, still is a very good man, and Charles tells me, “Those who claim it was a failure don’t know what they’re talking about.”  He said that boldly years ago to me.

King later of course says, in assessing it, that I had problems and SCLC had problems, but it was not a failure.  Now the tensions that rose up among people is understandable.  I don’t know them myself.  King wants me to come there and I don’t go, but he doesn’t put any pressure on me to come.

 

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