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.
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).
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).
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 Prophet: The 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:
and “Martin Luther King and the Challenge of Nonviolence”: