Hundreds of people descended upon MacArthur Park on December 11 for the dedication of the UCLA James Lawson Worker Justice Center. The celebratory event recognized the enduring legacy of the nation’s premiere non-violence tactician – the Rev. James M. Lawson, Jr.
Politicians, clergy and labor leaders were in the audience along with community members, trade unionists and social activists who all united in tribute of Lawson’s lifelong commitment to peace and justice.
Renowned for his teachings on nonviolent action, the pastor emeritus of Holman United Methodist Church in Los Angeles was the master strategist behind some of the memorable marches defining the country’s Civil Rights Movement. Lawson worked closely with the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and trained many of the future leaders of the movement including John Lewis, Diane Nash, Marion Barry and James Bevel.
His students participated in the Freedom Rides, the 1963 Birmingham Children’s Crusade, the 1966 Chicago Open Housing Movement and the Anti-Vietnam War Movement. Even before those campaigns, Lawson was an early convert to nonviolent resistance, which he demonstrated in 1951 when he said he was a conscientious objector and was arrested for refusing to report for the draft. In addition, he taught nonviolent tactics to Black students who integrated Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas in 1957.
Since retiring from Holman UMC in 1999, Lawson continues to share his strategies and tactics with individuals and organizations around the world. The James Lawson Institute offers training in people organizing movements and nonviolent civil resistance. For the past 20 years, he has also served as a UCLA labor studies faculty member.
Following the unveiling of the building’s new name – UCLA James Lawson Worker Justice Center – the honoree, stepped to the podium in the midst of a prolonged, standing ovation from the audience.
“As a college student, I tried to prepare myself for going to jail. But I had no idea how to prepare for this moment, for this extraordinary experience of all of you and the coalition that came together to make this possible. I thank you very much. I could never have imagined anything like this in all of my life,” insisted Lawson.
“My journey thus far has been a journey of people, a journey of community and family. Whatever role I played, it’s because of people like yourselves in Nashville, Tennessee, in Memphis, and in Los Angeles,” he asserted, while encouraging the crowd to continue working for justice and peace.
“You who come together to make this day possible, I want to urge us to keep this coalition together and keep it moving towards dismantling the old ancient forces of spiritual wickedness. They are very, very real. We must dismantle them and in doing that, we will help ourselves achieve the stature of being fully alive and learning to love,” Lawson said, as the multicultural audience nodded and applauded in agreement with his comments.
In fact, Lawson’s impressive track record of working with disadvantaged groups in the pursuit of justice influenced a collaborative effort to purchase the building, obtain funding for its renovation and rename the facility in honor of the legendary civil rights giant. Thanks to the work of the legislators, California’s 2021-2022 budget included a one-time $15 million allocation to renovate the building.
California State Senator Maria Elena Durazo, who worked with Lawson on several initiatives, proposed naming the center for him, submitted the request for funding to the Senate and obtained the support of the Latino Caucus. State Senator Steven Bradford, chair of the California Legislative Black Caucus, also backed the effort and persuaded his caucus to assist.
Assemblymembers Reggie Jones-Sawyer and Miguel Santiago led the charge for funding in the State Assembly and were supported by Assemblymember Evan Low, chair of the LGBTQ Caucus. On a local level, County Supervisors Holly Mitchell and Hilda Solis, Mayor Eric Garcetti and Councilman Gil Cedillo sponsored resolutions promoting the project. They all shared public salutes during the dedication program.
“There is no American who has done more for peaceful, nonviolent, and social change in this nation than the Rev. James Lawson. Today, we dedicate this building and next, we advocate for the Presidential Medal of Freedom,” said Cedillo, who represents the district where the center is located. Illustrating the character of Lawson, Cedillo related that Lawson came to the USC Cancer Center hospital to pray with him and his family as Cedillo’s wife was in her final days of life.
Garcetti noted that Lawson not only connects God and labor, but also highlights the way individuals should approach the past, present and future. “We’re used to reading history and learning about history, but the Rev. James Lawson has taught us that we need to make history, not just mark history,” the mayor said. “On behalf of the City of Angeles, we say thank you to this angel. This man has shown us what it means to be in a world fighting for justice.”
Mitchell, chair of the Board of Supervisors, evoked laughter among the crowd as she shared memories of worshipping under Lawson while he was pastor of Holman UMC. Recalling that “the sound of his voice used to scare me to death,” she also credited him with patiently explaining the meaning of “plantation capitalism” after she admitted that she didn’t know the definition.
“Rev. Lawson is a visionary. He was a man before his time, but thank God he’s a man of our time,” said Mitchell, who went on to offer words that she felt reflected Lawson’s legacy. “Courage, faith, plantation capitalism, nonviolence, love, compassion and forgiveness. When he announced to the church that he would visit James Earl Ray (the convicted assassin of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.) in jail, that’s when I learned what forgiveness and grace really looks like in human form,” she said.
“I am proud to be your friend. I appreciate the time and patience you gave me to try to understand the concepts you lectured and taught for many years. I appreciate you for investing in humankind all of your adult life.”
Jones-Sawyer related a past encounter with Lawson too, citing how when he first met the minister in 2012, he tried to impress Lawson by announcing that his uncle, Jefferson Thomas, was one of the Little Rock Nine, which refers to the famous case where students integrated Central High School in 1957.
“As I was going on about what my uncle went through, Rev. Lawson stopped me and said, ‘I knew your grandfather and Deacon Thomas and I talked about civil rights and how your grandfather wanted to get involved in the civil rights movement,’” Jones-Sawyer said, smiling at the memory because he didn’t previously know about the connection.
However, in preparation for his family’s heavy involvement with the movement, the assemblymember said, “Rev. Lawson taught nonviolence to those nine kids. He taught them to be courageous and bold. When we see his name [on the building of the center], we should thank God for sending us Rev. Lawson.”
Expressing comparable awe, Bradford called Lawson “a civil rights icon, a social justice icon and a person who’s been getting in good trouble for 93 years. The actions and words and achievement of Rev. Lawson have contributed to the success and prosperity of not only African Americans that we enjoy today, but to all Americans.”
UCLA Chancellor Gene Block emphasized Lawson’s long relationship with the university in his remarks, mentioning that the school awarded the legendary minister with its highest honor – the UCLA Medal – in 2018.
“For over 60 years, James Lawson has insisted that humanity’s salvation lies in reason and compassion, not violence or exploitation. His vision and valor has mobilized Americans, changed this nation and inspired activists around the globe,” declared Block. “As a longtime professor, he has set an example for students and colleagues and motivated new generations to make change where it’s needed most. Rev. Lawson, for your work and legacy, UCLA is eternally grateful. We deeply thank you.”
Other program participants were UMC Bishop Grant Hagiya, Rabbi Steven Jacobs, L.A. County Federation of Labor President Ron Herrera, Assembly Speaker Anthony Reardon, California State Controller Betty Yee, UCLA Dean of Social Sciences Darnell Hunt, Abel Valenzuela of UCLA Institute for Research on Labor and Employment and Kent Wong of the UCLA Labor Center. Also, Ashley Williams, Rebecca Ortega and Niquio Valcobero provided musical selections.
Some of the other people who contributed to the naming and funding of the UCLA James Lawson Worker Justice Center were Governor Gavin Newsom, California Senate Pro Tem Toni Atkins, State Labor Federation Secretary/Treasurer Art Pulaski, L.A. County Democratic Party Chair Mark Gonzalez, former UC Regents Chair John Perez, former SEIU Workers Untied General Manager Cristina Vazquez, and UCLA Labor Center Capital Campaign Director Larry Frank.
At the close of the dedication ceremony, Lawson presented a charge to the crowd, stating, “Economic justice for our 331 million people in the U.S. is perhaps the most daunting, complex issue we face, but if we do not achieve it, if we cannot achieve it, we as a people would have failed this vision of ‘we hold these truths to be self-evident – that all are created equal, that all are endowed with certain inalienable rights – life, liberty and pursuit of happiness.’ Let us continue the struggle with all we can muster.”
Lawson’s new book, “Revolutionary Nonviolence – Organizing for Freedom,” will be released in February 2022 and includes a foreword by renowned activist and professor Angela Davis. The publication features his teaching on nonviolence organizing as well as provides a guide for the next generation of activists to build effective social movements.