Reverend James M. Lawson, Jr. has been called, “the leading theorist and strategist of nonviolence in the world” by Martin Luther King, Jr. and an “architect of the nonviolence movement” by Freedom Rider and Congressman John Lewis. Lawson began formally studying Gandhi’s principals of non-violent passive resistance during his three-year tenure in India as a Methodist missionary in the mid-1950s. However, Lawson had learned to use non-violent means to negotiate life’s challenges long before his time in Nagpur, India.
It was in 1932, as a young boy in Massillon, Ohio, that Lawson first heard the “n-word” hurled at him. “Racial epithets that were shouted at me by kids, by youngsters, in the park and on the street,” said Lawson. “Age 4, age 5, age 6, age 7, probably every year that happened, I hit somebody. Oh, I fought somebody. Sometimes I came away with a bloody nose myself.”
For the first time, at age eight, after returning from an errand for his mother, Lawson told her that he had slapped a child in the street after the boy had shouted at him. Philane May Cover Lawson admonished her son for using physical violence and urged him to always be guided by love. “She stopped me with her words. That was a life-changing experience for me,” said Lawson. “I made a decision. I would no longer fight . . . I would find another way. That was a transforming business. From then on, I’ve tried to use my mind and my heart, rather than my fists.” Eight decades later, Lawson still adheres to his mother’s teaching.
Lawson met Martin Luther King, Jr. when he was a graduate student at Oberlin College in 1957. King urged him to move South and aid in the Civil Rights Movement. Following King’s advice, Lawson and went on to become an important figure in winning the fight for equal rights. He taught workshops on the tactics of nonviolence to King and others in the Southern Christian Leadership Coalition (SCLC) and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). He helped organize the Nashville Student Movement’s successful sit-in campaign of 1960, which resulted in his expulsion from Vanderbilt University School of Divinity. (In 2006, Vanderbilt honored Lawson by naming him a Distinguished Visiting Professor.)
Some of the students that went through Lawson’s famous workshops on the tactics of nonviolent direct action were Diane Nash, Bernard Lafayette, John Lewis, Jim Bevell, Marion Berry and many others. Lawson was also a key organizer of the Nashville Student Movement’s continuation of the Freedom Ride when the original CORE Freedom Ride was stalled in Birmingham, Alabama.
In 1968, Lawson chaired the strike committee for sanitation workers in Memphis, Tennessee. At Lawson’s request, Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke to the striking workers on the day before his assassination. In 1974, Lawson moved to Los Angeles to lead Holman United Methodist Church where he served as pastor for 25 years before retiring in 1999. Throughout his career and into retirement, he has remained active in various human rights advocacy campaigns, including immigrant rights and opposition to war and militarism.
With all of his contributions to the Civil Rights Movement and a legacy that spans over six decades, the accomplishment Lawson is most proud of is being a pastor for over 43 years. “Since 1960, I’ve helped three congregations build their buildings and finish their campuses. My proudest accomplishment is in 22 months, I enabled a congregation of about 250 people in Shelbyville, Tennessee, to build a building from the ground up.” Ironically, Lawson never had a chance to preach in that church. He was called to another church by the conference bishop. “I had to leave the first Sunday we opened and consecrated it. That was my last Sunday. My father came down and preached the opening service,” Lawson laughingly recalled.
On the subject of having a humanitarian award in his honor, Lawson is quite humbled. “I’m astonished,” he commented. “I am very grateful to God that I’ve lived to see it. I do maintain that it’s not so much me as it is the way that I have been led by the Spirit across eight decades.”
Marian Wright Edelman was Lawson’s immediate choice for the first recipient of the award. “I nominated her instantly. She organized the Children’s Defense Fund 40 years ago. That is an organization that offers the only agenda that can heal the soul of our nation. If America puts its attention on seeing to it that every baby born has a healthy, fair, moral head start. . . If a nation does that, it will be obeying God, and it can only prosper.”
On Friday, December 4, Marian Wright Edelman, president and founder of the Children’s Defense Fund will receive the inaugural James M Lawson, Jr. Humanitarian Award at Holman United Methodist Church’s 70th Anniversary Gala. The gala will take place at the Omni Hotel, 251 South Olive Street, Los Angeles, CA, 90012. A silent auction and cocktail hour will begin at 6:00 p.m. The dinner and program will begin at 7:00 p.m. Tickets and information are available at www.holmanumc.com\lawson, or call 323-731-7285.