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James Lawson was born in Uniontown, Pennsylvania, on 22nd September, 1928. After graduating from Boston University he became a divinity student at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee.
A pacifist committed to equal civil rights, Lawson organised student sit-ins demonstrations against segregated lunch counters in Nashville in November, 1959. This led to him being removed from the course by the university chancellor. Lawson worked for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) until he became a pastor in Memphis, Tennessee.
In 1968 it was Lawson who invited Martin Luther King to Memphis to help support the collectors' strike. On 3rd April, King made his famous I've Been to the Mountaintop speech. The following day, King was killed by a sniper's bullet while standing on the balcony of the motel where he was staying.
Lawson works with the Martin Luther King Center for Nonviolence and is the pastor of the United Methodist Church in Los Angeles. He is also national chairman of the Fellowship of Reconciliation.
We affirm the philosophical or religious ideal of nonviolence as the foundation of our purpose, the pre-supposition of our faith, and the manner of our action. Nonviolence as it grows from Judaic-Christian traditions seeks a social order of justice permeated by love. Integration of human endeavor represents the crucial first step towards such a society.
Through nonviolence, courage displaces fear; love transforms hate. Acceptance dissipates prejudice; hope ends despair. Peace dominates war; faith reconciles doubt. Mutual regard cancels enmity. Justice for all overthrows injustice. The redemptive community supersedes systems of gross social immorality.
Love is the central motif of nonviolence. Love is the force by which God binds man to himself and man to man. Such love goes to the extreme; it remains loving and forgiving even in the midst of hostility. It matches the capacity of evil to inflict suffering with an even more enduring capacity to absorb evil, all the while persisting in love.
By appealing to conscience and standing on the moral nature of human existence, nonviolence nurtures the atmosphere in which reconciliation and justice become actual possibilities.
Jim Lawson knew, though we had no idea when we began, that we were being trained for a war, unlike any this nation had seen up to that time. A nonviolent struggle that would force this country to face its conscience. Lawson was arming us, preparing us, and planting in us a sense of both rightness and righteousness. A soul force that would see us through the ugliness and pain that lay ahead, all in pursuit of what he and Dr. King called, 'The Beloved Community.'
We must recognize that we are merely in the prelude to revolution, the beginning, not the end, not even the middle. I do not wish to minimize the gains we have made thus far. But it would be well to recognize that we have been receiving concessions, not real changes. The sit-ins won concessions, not structural changes; the Freedom Rides won great concessions, but not real change.
There will be no revolution until we see Negro faces in all positions that help to mold public opinion, help to shape policy
One federal judge in Mississippi will do more to bring revolution than sending 600 marshals to Alabama. We must never allow the President to substitute marshals for putting people into positions where they can affect public policy. .
Remember that the way to get this revolution off the ground is to forge the moral, spiritual and political pressure which the President, the nation and the world cannot ignore.
We recognized indeed by that time in a very real way, in a way that had been forged not only in marches but also in the jails across the South and before crowds of those who were antagonistic towards us across the South. We were convinced that we were out for the cleansing of the American soul, for the redeeming of life.
We recognized that we were out to heal this people of America of its violence, its greed, its disdain for human beings, its white western privilege, its euro-western privilege, and to proclaim a beloved community, to proclaim a different kind of society. A society that we could say was caught up in the whole themes of the scriptures of our tradition, the Kingdom of God, the Beloved Community, the Will of God on earth as in heaven, or the necessity for a new earth and a new heaven. In other words, we recognized that we needed to propose a different vision for the nation of which we were a part. That message, of course, has largely been ignored, I believe, by the nation as a whole. Certainly by the media, certainly by those who see superficially what they call a civil rights movement and did not recognize it as a human movement, no doubt coming out of the Black church in many ways, no doubt out of the Black Christian tradition in the United States, no doubt out of the spirituality that has shaped us, but nevertheless a movement that was concerned for how this nation had to change.
That my journey of nonviolence early on made me recognize that I could not put on a military uniform or carry the weapon of a police officer, that as indeed a person of faith I, therefore, had to recognize my hostility towards a war and all of its methods and all of its concomitant issues and so spent 14 months in federal prison as one refusing to be drafted, refusing to take a ministerial deferment or a student deferment during the Korean War.
So my own understanding, indeed, blended the business of resisting prejudice and bigotry, racism and segregation, and also resisting violence in all various forms especially in the form of war. But the peace movement wasn't sure that I was a serious devotee of a nonviolent perspective. But the second thing I want to say about this is that in these years of the peace movement in the United States - and I have been engaged as a pastor in a pulpit, as a teacher, and an activist in the community - in all these years I have been involved in the anti-American foreign policies whether in southeast Asia or Angola or in Central America or wherever, my voice and my body had been spent in joining the peace movement or being a part of the peace movement in saying "No."
According to Sir Alexander Grant, Edinburgh University’s most authoritative historian, James Lawson is ‘the man to whom, above all others, the foundation of the University of Edinburgh is due’. Born in Perth, he entered St Andrews University in 1559, where he was a class-mate and friend of Andrew Melville, the father of Scottish Presbyterianism and future reformer of the Universities of Glasgow and St Andrews. He was subsequently employed as tutor at Paris University to the three sons of the Countess of Crawford. Religious strife in France led him to quit the Continent and pursue further studies in London and Cambridge. In February 1569 he was appointed to teach Hebrew at St Mary’s College, St Andrews, but in July of the same year was named sub-principal of King’s College, Aberdeen.
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Lawson, James M.
As a minister who trained many activists in nonviolent resistance, James Lawson made a critical contribution to the civil rights movement. In his 1968 speech, “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop,” Martin Luther King spoke of Lawson as one of the “noble men” who had influenced the black freedom struggle: “He’s been going to jail for struggling he’s been kicked out of Vanderbilt University for this struggling but he’s still going on, fighting for the rights of his people” (King, “I’ve Been,” 214).
The son of Philane May Cover and James Morris Lawson, Sr., Lawson was born in Uniontown, Pennsylvania, in 1928. He earned his AB from Baldwin-Wallace College in 1951 and his STB from Boston University in 1960. A draft resister, Lawson was imprisoned in 1951 for refusing to register with the armed forces. Following his parole from prison in 1952, he traveled to India and performed missionary work with the Methodist Church. While in India, he deepened his study of Gandhi’s use of nonviolence to achieve social and political change. In 1956, Lawson returned to the United States and resumed his studies at Oberlin College’s School of Theology from 1956 to 1957, and Vanderbilt University from 1958 to 1960.
When Lawson and King met in 1957, King urged Lawson to move to the South and begin teaching nonviolence on a large scale. Later that year, Lawson transferred to Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee, and organized workshops on nonviolence for community members and students at Vanderbilt and the city’s four black colleges. These activists, who included Diane Nash, Marion Barry, John Lewis, Bernard Lafayette, and James Bevel, planned nonviolent demonstrations in Nashville, conducting test sit-ins in late 1959. In February 1960, following lunch counter sit-ins initiated by students at a Woolworth’s store in Greensboro, North Carolina, Lawson and several local activists launched a similar protest in Nashville’s downtown stores. More than 150 students were arrested before city leaders agreed to desegregate some lunch counters. The discipline of the Nashville students became a model for sit-ins in other southern cities. In March 1960 Lawson was expelled from Vanderbilt because of his involvement with Nashville’s desegregation movement.
Lawson and the Nashville student leaders were influential in the founding conference of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), held April 1960. Their commitment to nonviolence and the Christian ideal of what Lawson called “the redemptive community” helped to shape SNCC’s early direction (Lawson, 17 April 1960). Lawson co-authored the statement of purpose adopted by the conference, which emphasized the religious and philosophical foundations of nonviolent direct action.
Lawson was involved with the Fellowship of Reconciliation from 1957 to 1969, SNCC from 1960 to 1964, and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) from 1960 to 1967. For each organization, he led workshops on nonviolent methods of protest, often in preparation for major campaigns. He also participated in the third wave of the 1961 Freedom Rides. In 1968, at Lawson’s request, King traveled to Memphis, Tennessee, to draw attention to the plight of striking sanitation workers in the city. It was during this campaign that King was assassinated on 4 April 1968.
Lawson continued to work with various civil rights groups following King’s assassination. In 1973, he became a board member of SCLC and served as president of the Los Angeles chapter from 1979 to 1993. He was also the pastor of Holman United Methodist Church in Los Angeles from 1974 to 1999.
James E. Lawson Jr.
James E. Lawson Jr. made a significant mark on the history of the Civil Rights movement in Tennessee and in the South. He is best known in Tennessee history as the Vanderbilt Divinity School student who was expelled in 1960 over his leadership in the Nashville lunch counter sit-ins. Lawson also helped organize the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) in Raleigh, North Carolina, in April 1960, and became one of the organization’s key leaders. He later served as a Methodist pastor in Memphis from 1962 to 1974, where he led the sanitation workers’ strike that provided the occasion for Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination in 1968.
Already an ordained Methodist minister, the thirty-year-old Lawson came to Nashville in 1958 to continue his ministry as southern regional director for the Fellowship of Reconciliation, an international Christian organization emphasizing pacifism and nonviolence, and to complete his divinity degree at Vanderbilt. While in Nashville, he became projects director for the Nashville Christian Leadership Conference, the local affiliate of King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference.
In this role, he began teaching workshops in nonviolence to students from Nashville’s four predominantly black institutions of higher education. This led to the organization of the Nashville Student Movement, which initiated the sit-ins that began on February 13, 1960. The sit-ins ended on May 10 with the successful integration of the city’s downtown lunch counters.
The Vanderbilt controversy began on March 2 following a Nashville Banner report in which Lawson was quoted as saying he would encourage students to “violate the law.” Although Lawson denied the remarks, Vanderbilt Chancellor Harvie Branscomb gave him the choice of being expelled or giving up his leadership role in the sit-ins. Lawson accepted expulsion, which was supported by the university’s Board of Trust. An ensuing controversy at Vanderbilt lasted for several months. An eventual compromise between the administration and Lawson’s faculty supporters gave him the option of completing the remaining courses for his degree elsewhere and transferring them to receive a Vanderbilt degree. Lawson refused the offer, however, and eventually completed his Bachelor of Sacred Theology degree at Boston University’s School of Theology. However, he did return to Vanderbilt in 1970-71 to work on a Doctor of Ministry degree.
Lawson, who was born September 22, 1928, in Uniontown, Pennsylvania, graduated from Baldwin-Wallace College in Ohio in 1952. When he received a draft notice during the Korean conflict, Lawson, who had become a pacifist after registering for the draft, refused to report for duty. As a result, he was tried and convicted for draft evasion. After serving a thirteen-month sentence, he was paroled in order to work as a missionary teacher at Hisloe College in Nagpur, India, from 1953 to 1956.
After graduation from Boston University’s School of Theology, Lawson served as pastor of Centenary United Methodist Church in Memphis from 1962 to 1974. There he received a number of civic and community awards, including “Man of the Year” from the Catholic Interracial Council in 1969. After leaving Memphis, he became pastor of Holman United Methodist Church in Los Angeles he is now pastor emeritus at that same church. He is married to the former Dorothy Wood, and they have three sons.
James Lawson, Conscience of History
I have been wading through the three volumes of Taylor Branch’s history, America in the King Years, and reliving the dozen years between Montgomery and Memphis. The Montgomery bus boycott catapulted Martin Luther King, Jr., into the national headlines Memphis was where he was assassinated. Throughout that tumultuous time, the Reverend James Lawson stood just offstage, a key partner in the nonv iolent campaign for full citizenship for African Americans.
While King spearheaded the campaign to desegregate the buses in Montgomery, Lawson trained students in Nashville in the ways of nonv iolence. He led small workshops tucked away in church basements. He taught his students not to react to taunts and threats. He gave them tools to remain calm and centered while undergoing arrest or physical attacks. Lawson believed that only by enduring the blows of hatred could haters see their own humanity. He brought Gandhi’s understanding of nonv iolence to this country and he trained thousands of civil rights workers during those years.
The Reverend James Lawson was the person who kept King aligned with nonv iolent practice. When the pressure seemed too intense to sustain nonv iolence, Lawson coached King to go deeper into himself. When King began writing, Lawson guided him to the sources of strength and clarity that made his work so powerful for religious people across the country. For his efforts in Nashville, Lawson was booted out of Vanderbilt, where he was attending seminary.
I first met Lawson in the early 1970s, when he became pastor of the largest African American United Methodist congregation in Los Angeles. The bishop had appointed him chair of the regional Board of Church and Society and I was a member of that board.
Lawson taught us and led us to a faith-based understanding of the concerns we faced in those days: Vietnam, the struggle of farm workers and, above all, the economic issues threatening the country – debt and inflation from war, stagnant wages for working men and women, the absence of power to influence the decisions by government and corporate institutions that affect our lives.
Over and over Lawson led the board members to understand the stories behind the headlines, then helped us write the resolutions that addressed them, which we took to the annual meetings of the United Methodist Church. We wrote position papers on economic democracy, rising oil prices and monopoly capitalism. We led church people to the fields of the Coachella Valley to witness the farm workers’ struggle first-hand. We led struggles over racism in the church itself.
Throughout the years, I have turned to Lawson for guidance and understanding. He led me to understand and deepen my own practice of nonv iolence, helping me see it as a spiritual discipline that comes from the inside out. We were at the table together in the library of his church when CLUE – Clergy and Laity United for Economic Justice — was born to support a living-wage campaign in Los Angeles.
The Rev. Lawson, now retired, but still teaching nonv iolence around the nation, will be honored by another social-change organization he helped found following 9/11, ICUJP — Interfaith Communities United for Justice and Peace — that focuses on world peace and domestic justice. A fundraising reception will be held Sunday, September 9, at 5:30 p.m., prior to a 7:30 p.m. keynote address, and is open to all at no cost. For more information, go to icujp.org.
Lawson was the pastor at an African American United Methodist Church in Memphis when he called on his friend Martin Luther King to support the striking garbage workers. It was there, April 4, 1968, that King was assassinated. Someone foolishly thought a moment of violence would end the struggle for justice, but that effort is never finished.
Why It's Time to Get to Know the Black Civil Rights Activist James Lawson: An Interview with Michael K. Honey
Robin Lindley is a Seattle-based writer and attorney. He is features editor for the History News Network (hnn.us), and his work also has appeared in Writer’s Chronicle, Crosscut, Documentary, NW Lawyer, Real Change, Huffington Post, Bill Moyers.com, Salon.com, and more. He has a special interest in the history of human rights and conflict. He worked as a staff attorney on the investigation of the death of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., with the U.S. House of Representatives Select Committee on Assassinations. He can be reached by email: [email protected]
No human being in the sight of God is illegal. The fight for the civil rights of workers who come here from all over the world is the same as the Freedom Rides of 1961 and the continuing struggle for civil and human rights for all. – Reverend James Lawson
The proposed policies of President Donald J. Trump and a dominant Republican majority in Congress threaten to undermine Obamacare, education, the environment, labor and civil rights, and that translates into more suffering for minorities, workers, children, the poor, and other vulnerable people. These policies are forms of violence, according to renowned civil rights and labor activist Rev. James Lawson.
Rev. Lawson urges us to resist with nonviolence by joining together in what Dr. King called “the beloved community,” based on values of love and solidarity and a recognition that, as Dr. King said, “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”
Rev. Lawson (born 1928) has been committed to nonviolence in confronting injustice since childhood. He was ordained a minister by age 18 and earned a prison sentence for resisting the draft during the Korean War. After he completed his sentence he traveled to India to study Gandhian principles of nonviolence, satyagraha.
During the struggle for civil rights in the American South in the 1960’s Rev. Lawson mentored activists of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and the Fellowship of Reconciliation on nonviolent direct action. He also advised Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. He stood with Dr. King during his final campaign in 1968 in Memphis, Tennessee, in support of the Memphis Sanitation Workers’ Strike, a precursor of the Poor People’s Campaign for economic justice.
Rev. Lawson moved from the South to Los Angeles in 1974, and since then he has applied his nonviolent philosophy in campaigns for civil and labor rights and immigration reform.
Inspired by Rev. Lawson’s nonviolent philosophy and organizing expertise, University of Washington-Tacoma Professor Michael K. Honey directed and co-produced a film with award-winning filmmaker Errol Webber, Love and Solidarity: Rev. James Lawson and Nonviolence in the Search for Workers Rights.
Professor Honey, a friend and colleague of Rev. Lawson, sees the film as an introduction to Rev. Lawson’s role in the history of labor and civil rights struggles as well as a tool to educate students and communities about organizing nonviolent actions for justice.
Professor Honey also worked as a civil rights organizer in the South 40 years ago. He is an accomplished folk musician and performed with the late Pete Seeger and other notable musicians on several occasions over the decades.
Professor Honey graciously responded to questions about Dr. Lawson and his film by email.
Robin Lindley: What sparked your interest in making your film on Rev. James Lawson and nonviolence?
Professor Michael Honey: I served as a labor advisor to the Fetzer Institute in Michigan. Its mission is to promote love and forgiveness. They look for exemplars who hold that up in the world and I suggested Rev. Lawson as an exemplar who has brought values of love and forgiveness into both the civil rights and labor movements through the application of the philosophy and practice of nonviolence.
Robin Lindley: How did you get to know Rev. Lawson?
Professor Michael Honey: I met him in 1970 when I was a civil liberties organizer based in Memphis, where Rev. Lawson pastored Centenary United Methodist Church. He was the minister who helped to lead support for the Memphis sanitation strikers in 1968. We worked together on the campaign to free Angela Davis from false charges in California and I organized a big rally on her behalf at his church.
Robin Lindley: What are a few things readers should know about Rev. Lawson?
Professor Michael Honey: Lawson had gone to prison as a young man for turning in his draft card in protest to war and conscription. He had spent three years as a missionary and studying nonviolence in India.
In 1957, Dr. King asked him to come South as an organizer for the nonviolent movement. Lawson was in the background teaching nonviolent methods during the civil rights movement, from the Nashville sit-ins to the freedom rides to the mass disruptions of the segregation system in Birmingham in 1963, and of course during the Memphis sanitation strike in which Dr. King lost his life.
The main thing to know about him is that he is a deeply religious person whose family history is rooted in the black experience going back to his ancestors’ escape from slavery before the Civil War.
His world view is all-inclusive, as was King’s. He follows the teachings of Jesus and Gandhi, as did King, which means he has a vision of a world without racism, poverty, and war. These are all forms of violence, and Lawson strives as a nonviolence advocate to bring into being a “beloved community” in which people treat each other with respect and dignity and work to end all forms of violence in favor of an economy and a politics of love.
Robin Lindley: Some people equate Gandhi with “passive resistance” but, for Rev. Lawson, nonviolence is not passive. How does Rev. Lawson see nonviolence as “active” in resisting oppression?
Professor Michael Honey: Rev. Lawson says that from an early age he was a militant protestor against all forms of violence, what he calls “cruelty systems.” These included capitalism, colonialism, racism, sexism, class oppression, and the like. His view is all inclusive.
As a militant, he never could identify with the term “passive” or “pacifism.” Rather, he followed King and Gandhi, who used the term “nonviolent resistance.” That term seems ideally suited to the times we are in with the Trump Administration. Don’t add to the violence in the world and use peaceful means to stop violence in all its forms, but be militant, be disruptive. Don’t let the powers that be have any rest as they try to tear up democracy and human rights and increase the suffering in the U.S. and around the world.
Robin Lindley: Rev. Lawson is particularly concerned about workers’ rights. How did the issues of workers become his focus?
Professor Michael Honey: Rev. Lawson as a Methodist minister has a biblical framework put forward by Jesus of supporting “the least of these,” the poor and injured people of the world. When the Methodist church recruited him to Holman United Methodist Church in Los Angeles, he put that philosophy to work on a great number of social issues, especially the labor movement.
He used nonviolence principles and strategies to support organizing Latino/a immigrants, Dream Act students, black security guards, and others. At a time when unions have been battered and bashed across the U.S., the Los Angeles labor movement has made a comeback from deindustrialization and has vigorously organized workers in the service economy. Our film shows how the strategy and methods of nonviolence helped that to happen.
Robin Lindley: What are some of Rev. Lawson’s important achievements as a teacher and an organizer of nonviolent campaigns to lift workers and others? He has said that our economy is only for “the wealth of the few” and has ignited nonviolent campaigns to challenge the rich and powerful, the oligarchs, the Chamber of Commerce.
Professor Michael Honey: In “Love and Solidarity,” Rev. Lawson points out that “there is an elephant in the room,” called economic inequality. It is his view that the rich and powerful have taken control of democracy and turned it into oligarchy and that we the people have the power to change this through the application of the philosophy and practice of nonviolence. That includes practicing love in our personal relations and extending love through our political and social movements as well to take in those who have been cast off and exploited and to resist by every nonviolent method available to us the exploitation of our society and the people of the world by those he calls in the film, “the addicted people of power and wealth.” He does not dehumanize these people he calls for us to “encounter” them, to “shake them up,” and to reverse the “policies of death” that have taken charge of our politics, our military machine, our mass incarceration machine, our police, our instrumentalities of the state.
He believes that people at the local level already implement “policies of life and love” every day, and that the violence of those currently in power does not represent the true spirit of the American people. Like King, he is a great advocate of hope in the face of what others might consider a hopeless situation. For Lawson, there is no hopeless situation.
Robin Lindley: You’ve done an extensive study of Rev. Lawson’s life and philosophy. What are some resources for learning more about Rev. Lawson?
Professor Michael Honey: One can learn a lot about Lawson’s world view by going online. You can find his speeches and sermons everywhere, including on the website for our film, loveandsolidarity.com. We also have a Facebook page. And Bullfrog Films has a wonderful webpage in support of this film and their other films.
Currently, the best way to get an understanding of Rev. Lawson’s life and philosophy is to get our 38-minute movie from Bullfrog Films. We have been showing it at universities, unions, and in communities all across the country. Another way to learn more is to go the UCLA Labor Center website and order a copy of their new book, “Nonviolence and Social Movements,” based on a course by that name taught by Rev. Lawson and Kent Wong, the Labor Center Director.
Eventually, we will have another book based on the life and teachings of James Lawson. In the meantime, I suggest people watch for my forthcoming book, Martin Luther King’s Unfinished Agenda, with W.W. Norton. We hope to have it available by the fifty-year commemoration of the Memphis strike and King’s last day, on April 4, 2018. I also extensively interviewed him and wrote about him in my book, Going Down Jericho Road: The Memphis Strike, Martin Luther King’s Last Campaign (2007). Lawson, like King, still has much to teach about how to bring about a better world.
Robin Lindley: Thank you Professor Honey for your insights and congratulations on your moving film, Love and Solidarity and your forthcoming book on Dr. King.
The Civil Rights Pastor Who Declared ‘I Am a Man’
James Lawson was a Civil Rights icon who saw the need for the fight to include economic inequality. He also unintentionally doomed King by inviting him to Memphis.
Getty/The Daily Beast
When the Reverend James Lawson shouted “I am a man,” fifty years ago today, thousands of Memphis garbage strikers first echoed him—then millions of Americans did.
Tragically, James Lawson’s civil rights slogan defined Martin Luther King, Jr.’s final crusade—and unintentionally helped doom King. Lawson invited King to lead the Memphis garbageman’s strike that spring. That visit placed King in the path of the sniper’s bullet on April 4, 1968.
King endorsed Lawson’s expansion of the Civil Rights agenda, from demanding political rights to seeking economic justice. Memphis’s mostly African-American sanitation workers were fed up with minimal benefits and laughable wages—between $1.60 and $1.90 per hour. On February 1, a malfunctioning trash compactor crushed two men seeking shelter from a downpour inside their garbage trucks—yet their families received no compensation. Workers protested. The struggle escalated, exacerbated by Mayor Henry Loeb’s brusqueness.
The strike began February 12. Within three days, ten thousand tons of refuse were rotting on Memphis streets. Every day, as the strikers marched at noon, the Memphis police billy-clubbed and pepper-sprayed them. On February 24, fuming after a particularly violent confrontation the day before, the Reverend James Lawson delivered his stirring message.
Born in Pennsylvania in 1928, raised in Ohio, by the time he was 19 this son and grandson of Methodist ministers was licensed to preach. Starting in 1951, the Reverend Lawson served fourteen months in prison as a Conscientious Objector. When paroled, he became a Methodist missionary in India, harmonizing Mahatma Gandhi’s non-violent teachings with Jesus’s love-thy-neighbor-preaching.
While studying at Oberlin College after returning to America in 1955, Lawson met King. Lawson said he “planned to come south to work in the movement one day.” King replied: "Come now. Don't wait. We don't have anyone like you in the South." Lawson understood that King “didn't have a Black clergy person who had that kind of background,” combining prison, India, Gandhi, and Jesus.
Lawson transferred to Vanderbilt University in 1958. He and other activists targeted Nashville, Tennessee, a moderate city by Southern standards, with few laws imposing segregation. “Jim Crow” was simply local custom.
Lawson began training activists in what became legendary workshops, including the future Congressman John L. Lewis and Washington’s future mayor, Marion Barry. Lawson criticized organizations like the NAACP for being too legalistic, too complacent. He and his allies were saying to the black community: “we did not have to settle for passivity we did not have to settle for this evil. And that each of us had a responsibility, in whatever way necessary to begin to get liberated, begin to see that we had to organize to do it. The system cannot exist without our consent to it.”
Lawson preached that non-violence was not a passive act. Like war, it involved “suffering and sacrifice.” Instead of inflicting pain, Lawson taught, “we absorb the suffering that the opponent is ready to throw at us…. it's a time-honored Christian dogma. Instead of putting it out, [Jesus] took it in. And in taking it in forgave it and overcame it.”
A big-picture thinker, amid the strategizing, drilling and role-playing, Lawson recalls, “We brought in international issues. We related issues of race and jobs and economy and what not, so it wasn’t a one-stroke thing. We did not teach going to the lunch counters for the purpose of eating a hamburger.” Lawson understood that humans will sacrifice and suffer – as long as they feel connected to a community, history, and a great cause. And his goal was grand, calling the Civil Rights movement “a moment in history when God saw fit to call America back from the depths of moral depravity and onto His path of righteousness.”
By 1959, Lawson and his comrades were preparing for sit-ins and then boycotts in downtown Nashville. Lawson says Black women helped determine the target. “You men don't do the shopping for our families, we do the shopping and we shop downtown,” he recalls them saying. “And there's no place downtown where we can stop to rest our feet. If we have children, there's no place downtown where we can stop to give them a rest, get them a cup of ice cream. And we do get insults downtown.”
Thanks to Lawson, the Nashville Sit-ins and Boycott became a model for other cities. Wave after wave of quiet, polite, protestors sitting respectfully flummoxed the authorities. So did a constructive dialogue with the merchants and the mayor.
When the protestors upped the pressure by boycotting businesses, the merchants caved. Lawson brokered an agreement whereby Black citizens gradually, quietly, started integrating restaurants and department stores in small groups. The minimal fanfare, with reporters’ collaboration, limited the backlash. A campaign which began on February 13, 1960, triumphed by May 10.
While enhancing Lawson’s reputation, the struggle disrupted his education – Vanderbilt expelled him. Lawson moved to Memphis in 1962, becoming pastor of Centenary Methodist Church there. But he moved with the movement. When Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” speech rang out in the 1963 March on Washington, Lawson was there, rallying with him. When Bull Connor unleashed his cops on the 1965 Selma Voting Rights protesters, Lawson was there, absorbing blows with them. And when activists pushed for Open Housing in Chicago in 1966, Lawson was there, shouting with them.
It was, therefore, perfectly natural, that when his city erupted over the exploitation blacks endured from municipal bosses, Lawson was there too, leading them. That February 24, in Memphis, Lawson was fed up. “ For at the heart of racism,” he proclaimed, “is the idea that a man is not a man, that a person is not a person. You are human beings. You are men. You deserve dignity. ”
A strike organizer, Bill Lucy, had been pushing the slogan “I am a Man.” “He’s treating you like children,” Lucy said of Mayor Loeb on February 13, “and this day is over because you are men and must stand together as men and demand what you want.” Asserting African-American personhood defied what had become that ugly, demeaning, unmanning, word for Black men: “boy.” In 1787, the British anti-slavery activist Josiah Wedgewood designed what became a popular medallion in England and the North, exclaiming “Am I not a Man and a Brother?” In 1853, Sojourner Truth proclaimed “Ain’t I a Woman?” And in 1955, Bo Diddley’s hit, “I am a Man” – M-A-N, built on Muddy Waters’ “Hoochie Coochie Man” exclaiming: “Everybody knows I’m here.”
“I am a Man” captured the civil rights movement’s fight for dignity. “’I am a man’ meant freedom,” one sanitation worker Taylor Rogers recalled. “All we wanted was some decent working conditions, and a decent salary. And be treated like men, not like boys.” It galvanized the strikers – and their supporters nationwide. Visiting Memphis, King crowned Lawson “the leading theorist and strategist of nonviolence in the world.”
Unfortunately, their March 28 march turned violent. Stripping off the “I am a Man” signs, some workers smashed storefronts with the now-naked sticks. Seeking to restore his Gandhian credibility, King returned to Memphis for another march. While resisting an injunction, he delivered his “I’ve been to the Mountaintop” unexpected final sermon. He singled out Lawson as a “noble” leader, who’s “been to jail for struggling … but he’s still going on, fighting for the rights of his people.” Then, eerily, King preached: “I’ve seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight that we, as a people, will get to the promised land.”
After King’s assassination the next day, it still took a 40,000-person silent march, led by King’s widow Coretta Scott King, before Mayor Loeb recognized the union and increased wages and benefits.
From 1974 through 1999, Lawson led the Holman United Methodist Church in Los Angeles. He continued embodying what King in Memphis had called a “dangerous unselfishness,” demanding social justice, believing that “being a pastor meant to work to change the social environment.” He continued living the Gospel, even ministering to King’s killer, James Earl Ray, explaining: “I did not see it as something apart from the love of God or the love of Jesus.”
In 2006, 46 years after Vanderbilt expelled him, Lawson returned as a Visiting Professor. It was 6424 miles from Jerusalem. And more work remained. But James Lawson – and his people – had indeed reached the Promised Land.
Henry Hampton & Steve Fayer, Voices of Freedom: An Oral History of the Civil Rights Movement from the 1950s through the 1980s, 1991.
James Lawson (1758 - 1852)
James Lawson (1758-1852) was born in cork county, Ireland and came to the American Colonies at the age of eight years with a brother, John, age twelve, and an Uncle and his family about 1766. It is believed he and his brother, John Lawson were orphans. The name of their parents has not been proven.
James was a Revolutionary War soldier and served in the 8th Regiment of PA's Continental Line for two years and eight months as a private and sergeant.
James was a pioneer of Hickman County. He came to Bedford county, Tennessee from North Carolina in 1814. In February, 1818, he moved to Hickman County and settled on Defeated Creek where he received a land grant from the state of Tennessee in 1827 for two hundred acres of land for one cent per acre. This property is now known as 'The Old George Littleton Place,'
James was married first to Catherine Waggoner and had at least one son and three daughter with Catherine. The daughters remained in NC. He married a second time to Jurutha Parker, a widow with a son, Shadrach. They had at least three daughters and one son.
In 1833, James and his wife Juruth and daughters Sarah and Jane moved to Henry County, TN, leaving his stepson, Shadrach Lawson, sons James and Thomas Hardin and his family.
James and his wife Hurutha lived in Henry County until his death in 1852 at age ninety-six and Jurutha died there in 1856.
Found multiple copies of BIRT DATE. Using 1758
Husband: James Lawson Wife: Jurutha Hardin Child: James Lawson Relationship to Father: Natural Relationship to Mother: Natural Child: Elizabeth Waggoner Lawson Relationship to Father: Natural Relationship to Mother: Natural Marriage: Date: 24 Aug 1804 Place: Orange, North Carolina, USA