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“A Totally Moral Man”: The Life of Nonviolent Organizer Rev. James Lawson
Rev. James Lawson shares his experiences and knowledge with the CSUN students and faculty during a lecture on social change at Cal State University Northridge, September 2010. (Photo: Melissa Carr / Flickr)

“A Totally Moral Man”: The Life of Nonviolent Organizer Rev. James Lawson

Rev. James Lawson shares his experiences and knowledge with the CSUN students and faculty during a lecture on social change at Cal State University Northridge, September 2010. (Photo: Melissa Carr / Flickr)

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In 2005, Vanderbilt University in Nashville honored Rev. James Lawson with its Distinguished Alumnus award and invited him to teach as a distinguished visiting professor the next academic year. “No other alumnus has ever contributed so much to issues of national and international justice and peace, and the promotion of a nonviolent world view,” said Chancellor Gordon Gee in presenting the 77-year old Lawson with the award at the Vanderbilt Alumni Association’s annual banquet, 45 years after the university had expelled him for leading lunch-counter sit-ins and other civil rights protests.

Lawson – the leading American strategist of Ghandian nonviolent action, a leader of the Freedom Rides, and a close ally of Rev. Martin Luther King, and still an architect of social justice in his 80’s – said he bore no grudge when he was expelled and had put the Vanderbilt controversy behind him.

The invitation came “out of the blue,” he told the New York Times. “I simply did not anticipate that Vanderbilt would do this, or offer me that, so I had no inkling,” he said.

Although giving him the alumni award and professorship were a significant turnaround for Vanderbilt, Lawson’s own life has been a story of consistency, based on his deep religious convictions and his commitment to activism and teaching.

Pacifism has been a defining feature of Lawson’s life, thanks in large part to his mother. Lawson was born in Uniontown, Pennsylvania, and raised in Massillon, Ohio. His father came from Canada, to which his forebears, former slaves, had emigrated. His father was a strong-willed Methodist preacher, known for packing a pistol in his belt. He taught his son – the sixth of nine children – to fight for himself even if the odds were against him.

His mother, who had immigrated to the United States from Jamaica, saw strength in universal love. Once a little white boy much smaller than Lawson had called him a “nigger”; Lawson slapped the boy across the face. He proudly told his mother about the incident, but she admonished him, urging him always to be guided by love. The moment, he later reflected, was a “sanctification,” an epiphany that there was a better way to be.

By the time he reached Baldwin-Wallace College, in Berea, Ohio, Lawson’s ideas about nonviolence and political activism were rapidly coming together. He met A. J. Muste when the pacifist leader of the Fellowship of Reconciliation (FOR) spoke on campus, and he immediately joined FOR’s local chapter.

In the spring of his senior year, Lawson received a draft notice. Although by then he had decided to pursue ministry and could have received a deferment, he refused to request one. He thought it was unconscionable for the clergy to be deferred while others had to serve. He ended up in prison for thirteen months for refusing to fight in the Korean War.

After his release from prison, Lawson moved to Nagpur, India, where he served a three-year stint as a Methodist missionary and studied satygraha – the principles of nonviolence resistance developed by Mohandas Gandhi that had freed India from British colonialism.

One day in 1955, while in India, Lawson was reading a newspaper and saw photographs of masses of African Americans launching a bus boycott in Montgomery, Alabama. He began whooping, clapping, and dancing in joy. This shocked a colleague in the next hut, who only knew Lawson as a serious and cerebral man. But for Lawson, the photographs offered evidence that a nonviolent mass movement was taking hold back home. Moreover, the boycott movement was being led by a young Christian minister of about the same age as Lawson.

After returning to the United States, he began working on his master’s degree in theology at Oberlin College. From there, he planned to go to Yale Divinity School, and then, he reasoned, he would be adequately prepared to go to the South and work for civil rights.

But in 1956, King came to Oberlin to speak, and the two men made an instant connection. King urged Lawson to abandon his plans and come immediately to the South, where events were moving more quickly than anyone had dared imagine.

In 1958 Muste appointed Lawson the FOR’s southern field secretary, allowing him to move to Nashville, Tennessee, and to travel throughout the South conducting workshops in nonviolence for small groups of black teenagers, college students, and adults, many of them cosponsored with the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. King called Lawson “the greatest teacher of nonviolence in America.”

In September 1959 Lawson began holding workshops in a church basement for students from Vanderbilt University and from four black colleges in Nashville – Fisk, American Baptist College, Meharry Medical College, and Tennessee Agricultural and Industrial State University. Drawing on both Christian and Gandhian principles, Lawson convinced students that they had the potential to overturn segregation through the righteousness of their ideas and the power of nonviolent protest. It had been six years since the US Supreme Court’s ruling in Brown v. Board of Education, but not much had changed. Only a nonviolent movement, led by young people, Lawson said, would end segregation. It would require physical courage, unshakable conviction, and a willingness to forgive those who would beat them.

Lawson turned out to be a master strategist and careful planner. In his workshops, small groups of students, blacks and whites, engaged in role-playing exercises. Some played angry white racists pounding on protesters while calling them racist epithets. Lawson taught them to withstand the taunts, slurs, and blows of the segregationists and to protect themselves without retaliating. They began taking part in sit-ins at downtown businesses in 1959. Many of Lawson’s protégés – including John Lewis, Diane Nash, Bernard Lafayette, James Bevel, and Marion Barry – became movement leaders.

In February 1960, inspired by the sit-ins in Greensboro, North Carolina, some 500 new student volunteers crammed into Nashville’s First Baptist Church, eager to join the crusade. The students wanted to stage a sit-in the next day, but Lawson was worried that without training in nonviolence, the action would be a disaster. He wanted first to raise bail money and to make sure the students understood how dangerous it was to take a stand. When he saw there was no turning back, he led a crash course in nonviolence that lasted well into the night.

The next morning, the 500 activists went en masse to Nashville’s downtown stores, requesting to be served. They dressed impeccably and carried books to read. One group of students sat at a counter, were knocked down, beaten, and arrested. Then another group took their place, and the pattern was repeated. Some white thugs poured ketchup over the students and crushed lit cigarettes into their necks. As David Halberstam relates the incident in his book “The Children,” a white boy punched Rev. C. T. Vivian as the black minister knelt in prayer. One of the protesters, forgetting Lawson’s teaching, raised his fists to retaliate. “Put your hands in your pockets!” Vivian commanded. The protester obeyed.

More than 150 students were arrested. In a lead editorial, the Nashville Banner, one of the city’s two daily newspapers, quoted Lawson as urging students to “violate the law,” which the paper called “the incitation to anarchy.”

Outraged by the arrests and the brutal treatment of the student protesters, Nashville’s African American community organized a boycott of downtown stores. Many whites also stayed away, some out of sympathy, others out of fear. Business leaders pressured the mayor and city council to resolve the controversy. In April, after the home of a prominent black lawyer was bombed, students led a march on city hall and confronted Nashville’s mayor. To everyone’s surprise, the mayor publicly acknowledged, in front of a large crowd of protesters and with the press looking on, that segregation was wrong. The next month, Nashville’s lunch counters began to serve African Americans.

Ella Baker, a veteran civil rights activist, invited Lawson to deliver the keynote speech at the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee’s founding meeting in April 1960. The sit-ins, Lawson told the assembled activists, represented a “judgment upon middle class conventional half-way efforts to deal with radical social evil.”

At the same time he was leading the movement, Lawson pursued his master’s degree in divinity at Vanderbilt University. He was one of only a handful of blacks at Vanderbilt, which had begun admitting black graduate students but not black undergraduates.

In the midst of the growing sit-ins, and under pressure from university board members, the dean of the Divinity School asked Lawson to withdraw. Lawson refused, and the board expelled him. But the university got more than it bargained for. Lawson’s expulsion, reported on the front page of the New York Times, motivated ten Divinity School professors, including the dean, to resign in protest, forcing the school to eventually offer Lawson reinstatement. He opted instead to complete his degree at Boston University.

In 1961 Lawson and the Nashville students played a critical role in the Freedom Ride strategy. After the first wave of Freedom Riders were met with mob violence, including a bombing in Alabama, some activists thought the project should be halted. The Nashville students called Lawson, who endorsed the students’ plan to send a new wave of Freedom Riders to Alabama to continue the campaign. Lawson told the students he would join them.

On Wednesday, May 24, the Nashville contingent – all “graduates” of Lawson’s workshops – other activists, and about twelve reporters boarded the Trailways bus going from Montgomery, Alabama, to Jackson, Mississippi. Despite warnings of bomb threats along the way, the riders arrived safely in Jackson and, upon exiting the bus, filed into the “whites only” waiting room and were promptly arrested. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) offered to pay their bail, but the riders refused the offer, preferring to remain in jail until their trial. On Friday Lawson and the other arrested riders appeared in court. The judge, an extreme segregationist, found all twenty-seven defendants guilty and sentenced each to a $200 fine and a sixty-day suspended sentence. He wanted them out of Mississippi and out of the national media spotlight. But they refused to pay the fine and remained in jail, where some of them were beaten by the police. In the meantime, hundreds of other Freedom Riders had joined the crusade, making the John F. Kennedy’s administration increasingly concerned about the violent image of the United States being presented around the world.

On June 16 a delegation of Freedom Riders and their supporters, including Lawson, met with Attorney General Robert Kennedy at the Justice Department in Washington, DC. The delegation wanted Kennedy to intervene on behalf of the riders unfairly arrested in Mississippi. Kennedy wanted the activists to channel their energies into voter registration, promising to raise the money needed to make it feasible. Kennedy pressured the Federal Interstate Commerce Commission to issue new policies desegregating bus travel. The commission announced new rules in September 1961 whereby passengers would be permitted to sit wherever they pleased on interstate buses and trains, “white” and “colored” signs would come down in the terminals, separate drinking fountains, toilets, and waiting rooms would be consolidated, and lunch counters would be forced to serve people regardless of race.

In 1962 Lawson became pastor of Centenary Methodist Church in Memphis, where he continued his activism. In February 1968 he was asked to lead a strategy committee that was assisting black sanitation workers in Memphis, who toiled in dangerous conditions for pitiful wages and no benefits. Twenty-two black workers had been sent home when it began raining. White employees were not sent home. When the rain stopped after an hour or so, the white workers continued to work and were paid for the full day, while the black workers lost a day’s pay. The next day, two sanitation workers, Echol Cole and Robert Walker, were crushed to death by a malfunctioning city garbage truck. These two incidents epitomized the workers’ long-standing grievances. The Memphis sanitation workers earned an average of about $1.70 per hour. Forty percent of them qualified for welfare to supplement their poverty-level salaries. They had almost no health care benefits, pensions, or vacations. White supervisors called black workers “boy” and would arbitrarily send them home without pay for minor infractions that would be overlooked if done by white workers. The workers asked Memphis’s mayor, Henry Loeb, and the city council to improve their working conditions, but they refused to do so.

On February 12, 1,300 black sanitation workers went on strike. They demanded a pay raise, overtime pay, merit promotions without regard to race, and recognition by the city of AFSCME as their union bargaining agent. For the next several months, city officials refused to negotiate with the union. In private, Mayor Loeb reportedly told associates, “I’ll never be known as the mayor who signed a contract with a Negro union.”

Lawson worked with union, religious, and civil rights activist to put pressure on the City Council and the downtown business establishment to address the workers’ concerns and recognize their union. Lawson mobilized community support for the striking workers, including protest rallies, demonstrations, and a sit-in at City Hall. The Memphis police attacked the union members, ministers, and others indiscriminately, often using clubs and mace. While Lawson counseled nonviolence, the police were clearly trying to provoke the protesters, even arresting some of them for jaywalking.

Union leader Jerry Wurf recalled that, “What Lawson never understood was the degree to which he was hated in Memphis. They feared [him] for the most interesting of all reasons – he was a totally moral man, and totally moral men you can’t manipulate and you can’t buy and you can’t hustle.”

Lawson persuaded King to come to Memphis to support the strikers and to generate national attention for the walkout. King’s last speech was given at the Mason Temple, the day before he was murdered as he stood on the balcony of his room at the Lorraine Motel.

President Lyndon B. Johnson ordered federal troops to Memphis and instructed Undersecretary of Labor James Reynolds to mediate the conflict and settle the strike. The Memphis City Council passed a resolution recognizing the union. The strikers won a fourteen-month contract that included union dues check-off, a grievance procedure, and wage increases.

In 1974 Lawson left the South, accepting the position of pastor at the 2,700-member Holman Methodist Church in Los Angeles. There he became involved with the labor movement, the American Civil Liberties Union, and movements for reproductive choice and gay rights. He served as chairman of the Clergy and Laity United for Economic Justice. He also served as national chair of the Fellowship of Reconciliation.

In 1989 he was one of thirty-six people arrested at the Federal Building in downtown Los Angeles while protesting US support for the government of El Salvador, which had committed massacres during the country’s civil war. In 1997 he led a coalition of clergy in support of the city’s proposed living-wage law and led protest rallies to push the Los Angeles City Council to approve an ordinance to raise wages for workers employed by private companies that got municipal subsidies and contracts. The next year, he marched onto the University of Southern California campus in support of unionized food service and facilities workers.

In 2000 Lawson was part of an interfaith delegation to Iraq to call for the end of sanctions, and following the September 11, 2001, attacks, he founded Interfaith Communities United for Justice and Peace, which brought together leaders of all the major faiths. In a November 2004 speech, he called on the world’s religions to “stop blessing war and violence in all their various masks.”

In 2003 Lawson joined with unions, immigrant rights groups, and civil rights activists to launch an Immigrant Workers Freedom Ride to mobilize public support to reform immigration laws in Congress and to challenge the widespread immigrant-bashing that occurred in the wake of the 9/11 bombings. The Los Angeles contingent’s itinerary included several stops in southern cities, where they met with activists from the civil rights movement, including participants in the 1960s Freedom Rides, sharing stories of exploitation and struggle, prayers, and songs.

“No human being in the sight of God is illegal,” Lawson explained at one of the rallies. “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.”

For more information:

Raymond Arsenault. “Freedom Riders: 1961 and the Struggle for Racial Justice.” New York: Oxford University Press, 2006.

David Halberstam. “The Children.” New York: Fawcett Books, 1999.

Michael Honey. “Going Down Jericho Road: The Memphis Strike, Martin Luther King’s Last Campaign.” New York: W. W. Norton, 2008.

“At the River I Stand.” Documentary film directed by David Appleby, Allison Graham, and Steven John Ross. 1993.

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