Today, at 10 AM (California time), the Reverend James M. Lawson, one of the principal architects of the “civil rights movement”, and at the age of 92 an extraordinary fount of energy who remains a peerless example of the practitioner of nonviolence who leads by his moral example, and I–together with Dianne Dillon-Ridgley, a lifelong activist in human rights struggles–will be taking part in an hour-long panel discussion on “Gandhi, the Civil Rights Movement, and the Continuing Quest for Justice and Peace”. Rev. Lawson was last seen on the national stage just a few weeks ago, when he was called upon to speak at the funeral ceremonies for Representative John Lewis, a long-time Congressman from Georgia who was one of Lawson’s proteges in Nashville where the nonviolence training workshop was pioneered by Lawson. John Lewis, of course, went on to become a major figure in the movement, taking part in the freedom rides, becoming the head of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), and, perhaps most famously, marching alongside Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. at Selma. Rev. Lawson delivered a stirring funeral oration for John Lewis.
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 a translation into Russian of this article by Angelina Baeva, click here.
For previous essays on Rev. Lawson on this blog, see:
The Nashville Sit-ins:
and “Martin Luther King and the Challenge of Nonviolence”:
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.
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).
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.
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).
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.