Rev. James Lawson

[Pastor, Civil Rights Justice Leader]

“How can you claim to love God, who is invisible, if you hate the neighbor who you can see?”
Four major factors that have taught America to depend upon violence and animosity:
The decimation of America’s indigenous people and subsequent stealing of their land
The establishment of slavery
Sexism and the “headship” of the male
“Plantation capitalism” and its exploitation of the worker

Martin Luther King Jr. called him “the leading theorist and strategist of nonviolence in the world.” To Congressman John Lewis, he is an architect of the nonviolence movement. Author David Halberstam believed he was responsible for sowing the seeds of change in the South as much as any person (except maybe King). Rev. James M. Lawson Jr. was born in Pennsylvania in 1928 and to this day continues his life’s work in the service of direct action for social justice.

In 1955, Lawson was teaching in India while studying Gandhi’s life and work. It was there that he read newspaper accounts of the Montgomery bus boycott and first learned about Martin Luther King. Back in the U.S., after the two men met, Lawson went to Nashville, where he led workshops to prepare for direct action—marches, boycotts, sit-ins, and picketing. He also enrolled in Vanderbilt Divinity School, which had just begun to accept a small number of black students. He soon raised hackles by acting like a normal human being: eating in the cafeteria with white classmates and joining in intramural sports. When trustees realized that their black divinity student was the key figure behind the protests, two members of the board demanded and won his expulsion. Though the white faculty rallied in his support and Lawson’s enrollment was reinstated, he chose to complete his degree in Boston. (His relationship with Vanderbilt was renewed—or perhaps redeemed—in 2006, when the onetime subversive was named Distinguished Visiting Professor.)

Lawson coordinated the Freedom Riders, interracial groups of activists who rode interstate buses into the Deep South to exercise their civil rights under the Supreme Court’s anti-segregation rulings. They endured jailing and violence from mobs that included local police and the Ku Klux Klan. Years later, Lawson relocated to Los Angeles (where he has been arrested more times than during all his time in the South). As pastor of Holman United Methodist Church, he made nonviolence training part of Christian education and soon began to offer workshops, free, to the public.

Today, past the age of eighty, he continues to assert that justice is a tenet of all religions and that religious leaders must stop blessing violence and war. Lawson has moral authority and significant influence with elected officials, but still believes he can accomplish more in the streets than in the halls of power.

—Diane Lefer

I. WITHOUT PULLING A GUN

THE BELIEVER: You’ve said we have sufficient activism in this country to have a better country than we have. What are we getting wrong?

JAMES LAWSON: Activism is not appropriating and practicing the Gandhian science of social change. What Gandhi called nonviolence, or satyagraha—“soul force”—is both a way of life and a scientific, methodological approach to human disorder. It is as old as the human race and can be found in the oral and written history of the human family from way back. Then Gandhi began to put together the steps you need to take to create change. He is the father of nonviolent social change in the same way that Albert Einstein is the father of twentieth-century physics—not the inventor but the person who pulled it together.

Gene Sharp wrote the classic book in the field, The Politics of Nonviolent Action. Looking at different centuries and different cultures, he discovered 198 different techniques—various forms of protest and agitation and strikes, sit-ins, and civil disobedience, and there are many more, because people have invented other techniques. Activists ought to study this so they can become like military strategists, not just operating out of the adrenaline that develops out of anger.

Today, much of our activism does not discuss, study, and apply what nonviolence theory offers the struggle. Too much activism gears itself to lobbying legislatures and Congress and the president. That activism does not have the clout that the Council on Foreign Relations has, or that Exxon has or the Pentagon has, so it’s lost. Again and again, when a movement begins to raise its head in the United States, the so-called political social progressive forces immediately try to surround it and guide it into the channels they think are important. I experienced this as early as 1961 with what I think to be very wonderful people in the Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson administrations. Robert Kennedy was mobilizing foundations and others to put money into voter registration. In meetings, he pushed very, very hard and eloquently that we should end the Freedom Rides and go toward voter registration. In 2006, when the coalition of immigration groups came together to start the big marches, they were immediately approached by foundations and political groups that said the way to do this was to lobby for a good bill.

BLVR: But voting rights and voter registration paved the way for the election of Barack Obama. Doesn’t that show we can bring about change through the ballot?

JL: Pulling down the WHITE and COLORED signs across the country—the NO JEWS, NO MEXICANS, NO IRISH, NO WOP, NO INDIAN signs—has done far more to prepare the mind of the nation for a black president than voter registration. Desegregation of the sports world and the university and the professional world has done more to prepare the American mind than the Voting Rights Act of ’65. The country has grown since the ’50s and ’60s precisely because we put into play those forces that began the desegregation process while real access to the right to vote still hasn’t been settled in the United States.

Obama is one man, and we are still trying to establish a democracy. In the meantime, there’s the chaos and the greed. JPMorgan publicly said that this time of recession is a great time for it to buy up assets. The bailout was used to give dividends to its investors. There’s no indication that these engines for self-destructing our country have stopped or slowed down. And while the visible signs of segregation have come down, the systemic stuff is still there. Blacks are still largely the last to be hired and the first to be fired.

The peace movement has failed to slow down militarization and the empire elements in our country, and it has failed to stop war, because it does not understand that the road to peace is justice. The peace movement does not have the focus that dismantling racism and poverty in the United States is the critical issue for the security of the nation. Stabilizing families by good work, by health care, is the critical issue for the security of the land and the well-being of the land. Only by engaging in domestic issues and molding a domestic coalition for justice can we confront the militarization of our land. We must confront that here—not over there. Iraq and the Middle East are not the central, pivotal places for the well-being of the American people. The central pivotal place for three hundred million people here is the United States and our domestic policies.

We hope you enjoy this excerpt.

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Diane Lefer’s books include the novel Nobody Wakes Up Pretty, the short-story collection California Transit, and the nonfiction book The Blessing Next to the Wound: A Story of Art, Activism, and Transformation, coauthored with Colombian torture survivor Hector Aristizábal.

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