Reverend James Lawson, 1928-2024
June 10, 2024 11:24 PM   Subscribe

Reverend James Lawson, an architect of the US Civil Rights Movement, whom Dr. King called “the leading theorist and strategist of nonviolence in the world,” has died. Lawson went to prison for refusing the draft during the Korean War, and upon release he went to study with Gandhi, only to be called home to the front lines of the Civil Rights Movement by Dr. King. He led lunch counter sit-ins in Nashville that led to his expulsion from Vanderbilt University, helped found the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, mentored the Freedom Riders in nonviolence and strategy, and was a leader in the 1968 sanitation workers' strike in Memphis (he is credited with the famous "I AM A MAN" slogan) where Dr. King was assassinated. He befriended and ministered to Dr. King's assassin, James Earl Ray. In his later years Rev. Lawson was the pastor at Holman United Methodist in Los Angeles, and led weekly nonviolence clinics there long after his retirement. His project was the civil rights of all people, and he advocated until the end for the rights of all people regardless of race, for the rights of workers, for LGBTQ people, and for reproductive rights.

One story that comes up over and over again in interviews with Lawson is this one, in a version taken from the Washington Post article about his death:

Rev. Lawson related to Halberstam an experience at age 10 that he said set him on the path to Gandhian pacifism. On an errand for his mother, he was crossing a street when a White child, roughly 5 years old and seated alone in a parked car, yelled a racial epithet at him. Rev. Lawson reached through the car window and slapped the child hard across the face. He then went home and proudly recounted the story to his mother.

“What good did that do, Jimmy?” she asked, her back to him as she cooked. “We all love you, Jimmy, and God loves you, and we all believe in you and how good and intelligent you are. … With all that love, what harm does that stupid insult do? It’s nothing, Jimmy, it’s empty. Just ignorant words from an ignorant child who is gone from your life the moment it was said.”


Some more links:

His Wiki page.


James Lawson, towering Civil Rights activist and pioneer in nonviolent protest, dies at 95, The Tenneseean, June 10, 2024
“When all kinds of people in the United States become human, the people who have been mistreating them as less than human then are fearful,” Lawson said. “That’s the issue of racism in the United States, sexism in the United States, violence in the United States."

Nonviolence Is Power: A Conversation with Rev. James Lawson, The Beatitudes Center, 2022
In my own thinking, Christianity as the most powerful religion in the world must break with the use of that power which has created so much havoc, including the conquest of nations, and telling other people around the world that their culture, their religion, is wrong and they must be baptized. We have a lot of baptized people in the United States who are deeply enmeshed in the culture of sexism, racism, violence and what I call “plantation capitalism.” As I read and reread the Gospels about Jesus, I know full well that Christianity has to undergo a basic revolutionary change.

James Lawson: Reflections on Life, Nonviolence, Civil Rights, MLK, United Methodist Church website, 2017
“Our relationship and friendship is what brought [King] to Memphis in 1968 to the sanitation strike. I saw him twice on April the 4th, the day he was assassinated. What was left unsaid on that day, perhaps, might have been how much I appreciated his life and his leadership and to the extent to which I understood that to be indeed a carrying of the Cross that very few people recognized or understood.”

Organizing Principles: An Interview with Rev. James Lawson, Capital and Main, 2016
Asked whether our nation’s growing ethnic and racial diversity brings him hope for a better world, Rev. Lawson said, “The U.S. could be a bridge nation for the people of the earth, a terribly important model, if we could eliminate poverty, illiteracy, childhood neglect, etc. The U.S. could be an illustration that human history has never had — [a truly diverse people thriving together]. If we can do it, others can too.”

An Interview with Rev. James Lawson, The Believer, 2013.
I began working in Los Angeles with Local 11 – the Restaurant and Hotel Workers Union – with nonviolence workshops twenty-five years ago. First I wanted to help people develop the character and the courage to organize. The workers were heavily intimidated and harassed on the work scene so that they were not willing to talk about their work pain, their wages. We found a major barrier in their fears, frustrations, and complicated acquiescence. Some of that produced anger in them, some of it also produced abuse in the family. But what we decided to do was to work on one-on-one activities—and I called it evangelism. One-on-one. We taught going to the worker in his community, in his home, and not doing this once, but doing it systematically, maybe once a week, for as long as it took. The organizer was to be generous and kindly throughout, use no harsh language and approach the person with compassion and love. Do not concentrate on getting the person to join a union. Concentrate on helping the worker talk about his situation on the job, in the family, in the community. Get to the point where the worker is talking about his fear, his frustrations, his pain. What I had found in my ministry–and I did not really fully understand it at the time and I don’t fully understand it now– but what that did was ignite a spark in the worker. Then, with the organizer, it meant beginning to connect with other workers and beginning to realize that organizing with them is the key to changing his scenery. That represents nonviolence: helping this harassed person re-find his basic humanity and talk about it. This approach came directly from my understanding of nonviolence and my experiences in the 50’s and 60’s.
posted by kensington314 (35 comments total) 40 users marked this as a favorite
 
[little bit of help from the mods -- literally have no idea how "William" ended up in the title here, other than it's late at night and I'm tired. Would you mind changing it to James?]
posted by kensington314 at 11:27 PM on June 10 [1 favorite]


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posted by Tell Me No Lies at 11:31 PM on June 10


Speaking of the right side of history, what a fucking titan.

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posted by hototogisu at 11:45 PM on June 10 [5 favorites]


What a man he was! from that Beatitudes Center article

"Voting as an instrument of nonviolence is a part of a being a human being who wants to become fully alive, who wants to be fully an agent of love and compassion."

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"We have a lot of baptized people in the United States who are deeply enmeshed in the culture of sexism, racism, violence and what I call “plantation capitalism.” As I read and reread the Gospels about Jesus, I know full well that Christianity has to undergo a basic revolutionary change."
Hopefully the descendants of his teaching can wrest Christianity from the dead soul of the New Apostolic Reformation who see themselves as that revolution.
posted by unearthed at 12:15 AM on June 11 [9 favorites]


A small dot for a great human.
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posted by bryon at 3:47 AM on June 11


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posted by Rustic Etruscan at 3:54 AM on June 11


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posted by hydropsyche at 4:06 AM on June 11


Mod note: Title fixed!
posted by Brandon Blatcher (staff) at 4:14 AM on June 11 [1 favorite]


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posted by idb at 4:40 AM on June 11


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posted by trip and a half at 4:53 AM on June 11


Lawson was one of the last great Civil Rights-era influences regarding nonviolence in social life. I'm grateful for his legacy. His message has never been very popular, and I doubt it ever will be, especially in America. Too much of our cultural mythos centers on the righteous violence of the brave and resourceful hero, the "good guy with a gun." Still, Lawson and Rustin and King and others have meant a lot to me, and shone a light on a path that is always available for those who see its appeal. I've been all-in on nonviolence as my personal philosophy for a long time now.
posted by Pater Aletheias at 5:10 AM on June 11 [11 favorites]


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posted by May Kasahara at 6:42 AM on June 11


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posted by The Great Big Mulp at 6:47 AM on June 11


thank you for this amazing post. sharing it with my sons.
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posted by martin q blank at 8:23 AM on June 11


Some people are born better than their time.

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posted by Abehammerb Lincoln at 8:41 AM on June 11 [1 favorite]


What a truly wonderful person. We should all strive to follow his lead.
posted by WatTylerJr at 9:26 AM on June 11


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posted by rhizome at 9:47 AM on June 11


Boston University’s 2011 oral history interview with James Lawson. YouTube.
posted by bz at 10:04 AM on June 11 [1 favorite]


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posted by gentlyepigrams at 10:16 AM on June 11


Boston University’s 2011 oral history interview with James Lawson

Lawson was at BU because he was expelled from Vanderbilt University at the behest of a university trustee, for engaging in activities that were radical, inconvenient for many, disruptive to the prevailing order, and non-violent. Today, Vanderbilt is home to the James Lawson Institute for the Research and Study of Nonviolent Movements.

Today in my city, 25 students were arrested and banned from UCLA for inconvenient and disruptive non-violence:

A pro-Palestinian protest at UCLA Monday night ended with police making dozens of arrests and ordering demonstrators who were cited to not return campus for at least two weeks, officials said.

The confrontation came after protesters roved around campus earlier in the day reciting the names of some of those who have died in Gaza, the latest of several protests on the campus in recent weeks.


I couldn't stop thinking about the student protesters yesterday when I heard about Lawson's death. I won't be the first person here on the blue to note that one day there will be buildings, academic programs, scholarships, and so on named after their movement at Columbia and UCLA and USC and UC Berkeley and Emory and on and on. Those students are the ones who have learned from Lawson and are participants in his legacy.
posted by kensington314 at 10:17 AM on June 11 [7 favorites]


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posted by 43rdAnd9th at 11:42 AM on June 11


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posted by brujita at 12:16 PM on June 11


Terrific post with so many good links! Thank you!!

A respectful correction-- Lawson studied Gandhi's philosophy and strategies, and spoke to his followers in the 1950s as a Methodist missionary in India. But Gandhi the man was unfortunately assassinated in 1948 before Lawson arrived in the country.
posted by seasparrow at 1:01 PM on June 11 [3 favorites]


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posted by Lawn Beaver at 1:07 PM on June 11


Lawson studied Gandhi's philosophy and strategies, and spoke to his followers in the 1950s as a Methodist missionary in India. But Gandhi the man was unfortunately assassinated in 1948 before Lawson arrived in the country.

Thank you for this necessary edit. I always learned that he studied with Gandhi but should have realized the timeline doesn't add up!
posted by kensington314 at 1:12 PM on June 11 [1 favorite]


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posted by humbug at 5:08 PM on June 11


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posted by Kattullus at 5:15 PM on June 11


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posted by filtergik at 3:24 AM on June 12


Mod note: This beautiful celebration of a life well lived has been added to the sidebar and Best Of blog!
posted by Brandon Blatcher (staff) at 6:25 AM on June 13 [1 favorite]


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posted by biogeo at 7:00 AM on June 13


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To a life well-lived.
posted by Kadin2048 at 10:56 AM on June 13


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