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).

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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.

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*The Nashville Sit-Ins:  The Workshop of Nonviolence in Jim Crow America

Journeys in the Deep South I – A Birthday Tribute, September 22, to Reverend James M. Lawson

The Fact of Being Black:  History, Culture, Politics IV

 

Here I am at long last, at the site of what can likely be described as the first workshop of nonviolence in Jim Crow South.  The attempt to desegregate lunch counters was, of course, far from being the first step in the long road to gain equal rights for black people in the US during the course of what is now characterized as the Civil Rights Movement.  It had been preceded by the Montgomery Bus Boycott—and, in turn, concerted struggles to integrate transportation services in a large number of cities in the southern states.  The Nashville Sit-ins, long in the planning, were not even the first such act of nonviolent resistance.  When over a hundred students from Nashville’s historically black colleges and universities such as Fisk sat down in segregated lunch counters on 10 February 1960 in open defiance of the law, they had already been preceded by four black students who had initiated the same action at a lunch counter at Woolworth’s in Greensboro, North Carolina.

 

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A plaque that commemorates the site of the Nashville Sit-ins, on Fifth Avenue.  Photo:  Vinay Lal, September 2017.

Nevertheless, what transpired in Nashville marks an extraordinary moment in the history of nonviolent resistance in the United States:  to reiterate, it is here that we can justly speak of the first workshop of nonviolence in the deeply segregated South.  The architect of this movement was the Reverend James M. Lawson, on whom I expect to lavish many entries in the weeks and months ahead.  Reverend Lawson, who is 89 years old today, had spent a long stint in India during the 1950s—three years, from 1953 to 1956, as a Methodist minister in Nagpur, to be precise.  Though the leaders of the Civil Rights Movement were all steeped in the writings of Gandhi, Lawson was the only principal figure to have lived in India—an assignment that the young clergyman accepted readily since, as he thought, it would give him an opportunity to study at first hand the life of Gandhi and understand how he had forged a movement of mass nonviolent resistance in India.

When the Montgomery bus boycott was first organized, Lawson was still in India; he returned to the US a year later and shortly thereafter, as he has put it me on more than one occasion, “shook hands with Martin”.  Lawson brought to the movement a detailed knowledge of the strategies of nonviolent resistance deployed by Gandhi that no one else, possibly barring Bayard Rustin, could claim.  In the Deep South, the iron law of segregation prevailed in every domain of life and in every visage of social relations between the races.  The landmark Supreme Court ruling in the case of Brown vs. the Board of Education (1954) had signaled the intent of civil rights activists to break the barriers of segregation, but the legislatures of the southern states had effectively adopted the stance attributed to President Andrew Jackson in the celebrated case of Worcester v. Georgia (1832) where the Court had ruled that the Federal Government had sole jurisdiction in dealing with Indian (ie, Native American) nations:  “[Chief Justice] John Marshall has made his decision; now let him enforce it.”  If progress in desegregating schools was thus stalled, in other domains of public life the Brown decision had barely scratched the surface.

In 1958, then, Lawson set upon a course of action that would alter the face of the Civil Rights Movement.  He was determined to integrate lunch counters:  not only was the segregation pervasive here, but Lawson would have understood that who one eats with and who one shares one’s bread with are among the most significant markers of social existence.  The lunch counter at a Woolworth’s store was the most visible face of segregation in a public space.  Lawson had arrived in Nashville in 1958, enrolling as a student in the Master’s program at the Divinity School of Vanderbilt University.  But he was already one of the leaders of CORE, the Congress of Racial Equality, and committed to nonviolent activism.  Nashville was also home to several universities—not just Vanderbilt, but historically black colleges and universities such as Fisk, Tennessee State University, and the American Baptist College (Seminary).

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Fisk University, Nashville, Tennessee:  this “Gothically imposing structure” is less than 300 meters from Clark Memorial Church, and it is from Fisk, among other universities, that black students were drawn to the Reverend Lawson and the Civil Rights Movement.  Photo: Vinay Lal, September 2017.

In September 1958, Lawson gathered students around him and commenced what would become a year-long workshop in nonviolent civil action and resistance.  The red-brick Clark Memorial Methodist Church, at 14th Avenue North, less than 300 meters from Fisk University, would become the nursery where an entire generation of activists—Diane Nash, James Bevel, John Lewis, Bernard Lafayette, Marion Barry, to mention only some of those who would become prominent in the civil rights movement and in American public life—were trained by Lawson to live out the principles of nonviolent resistance.

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Clark Memorial Methodist Church, 1014 Fourteenth Avenue North, Nashville.  It is in mainly in the basement of this church that the Rev. Lawson conducted his famous workshops in nonviolent resistance.  “Clark Memorial”, wrote John Lewis in his memoir of 1998, “is still there today, a modest redbrick chapel two blocks away from the Gothically imposing structures of Fisk. There are no plaques, no monuments, nothing to suggest that anything historic happened there.  It’s just a little church on a sleepy street . . .  But from the autumn of 1958 into the following fall, that little building played a major role in educating, preparing and shaping a group of young men and women who would lead the way for years to come in the nonviolent struggle for civil rights in America.”  (Walking with the Wind, p. 76). Photo:  Vinay Lal.

He assigned students, or might one say his protégés, readings from Gandhi, Thoreau, Lao-Tzu, and Reinhold Niebuhr, the American theologian who would author the influential Moral Man and Immoral Society (1932), a work that is also said to have been important to the thinking of Barack Obama.  John Lewis, the long-time Congressman from Georgia who is Lawson’s most celebrated protégé, has furnished a reasonably long description in Walking with the Wind: A Memoir of the Movement (1998) of Lawson’s workshop; as he put it, “We discussed and debated every aspect of Gandhi’s principles, from his concept of ahimsa … to satyagraha—literally, ‘steadfastness in truth,’ a grounding foundation of nonviolent civil disobedience, of active pacifism” (p. 76).

Lawson taught his students how to take the blows of injustice upon their own shoulders and, with forbearance, humility, and patience, transform the perpetrators of violence; more precisely, he had them enact, time and again, the roles of both violent segregationists and nonviolent civil resisters at lunch counters.  A group of black people would be seated at lunch counters intended for white people; another group of white men would sneer and spit at them, empty bottles of ketchup and mustard on their heads, throw punches at them, and kick them while they writhed in pain on the ground.  Lawson trained his students not only to forgo any retaliation, but to endure whatever insults the segregationists threw their way.  “Back in that fall of ‘58”, Lewis would reminiscence in his memoir, “we were just kids, totally mesmerized by the torrent of energy and ideas and inspiration washing over us every Tuesday night in those Jim Lawson workshops” (p. 80).

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The reverse side of the plaque.  Photo:  Vinay Lal.

Malcolm X, perhaps the most significant (and in his own way mesmerizing) detractor of nonviolent resistance in his days, had quite a few cynical things to say about the sit-ins.  We’ve done plenty of sitting around, he told a captive audience in his famous “The Bullet or the Ballot” speech.  Malcolm could be compelling, even enthralling, but it is his very seductiveness of which we should be wary.  Meanwhile, nearly sixty years later, the Reverend James Lawson is still carrying out workshops in nonviolent resistance in Los Angeles, which he adopted as home over forty years ago.  His very life, one might say, is an object lesson on the meaning of fortitude and patience as part of the grammar of a life steeped in the ethos of nonviolence.