Campaign Nonviolence National Conference - Opening Session
Rev. James Lawson, civil rights leader and longtime organizer, delivers a rousing keynote speech at the Campaign Nonviolence National Conference, drawing from Gandhi’s historical struggles, his own strategic work in the Civil Rights Movement, and contemporary studies in the field of nonviolent civil resistance. Rev. Lawson also relates personal stories of his journey to nonviolence and his organizing work through eight decades of social justice struggles. Invigorating, challenging, and inspiring, this renowned speaker and educator offers a relevant and specific message to Campaign Nonviolence and everyone working for peace, justice, and the environment.
Martin Luther King, Jr. once called his friend and colleague Rev. James Lawson “the leading theorist and strategist of nonviolence in the world.”
Civil Rights leader James Lawson was born in Uniontown, Pennsylvania in 1928. His father and grandfather were Methodist ministers, and Lawson received his local preacher’s license in 1947, the year he graduated from high school. While in college, he joined the Fellowship of Reconciliation (FOR), which first exposed him to the nonviolent teachings of Gandhi and Howard Thurman.
In 1950, Lawson became a draft resister and was arrested and sentenced to three years in prison for refusing the Korean War draft. He spent fourteen months in federal prison (1951-1952). In 1953, he sailed for India where he taught at Hislop College in Nagpur, India. There he met with many of Gandhi’s colleagues, including Prime Minister Nehru. While in India, Lawson eagerly read of the Montgomery Bus Boycott and the emerging nonviolent resistance movement back in the United States.
When he returned to the United States in 1956, he enrolled in Oberlin School of Theology in Ohio. He met Dr. King in 1957, and decided to move to Nashville where he served as Southern secretary of the FOR. He enrolled at Vanderbilt Divinity School and began holding seminars to train volunteers in Gandhian tactics of nonviolent direct action. Drawing on the example of Jesus’ suffering and nonviolent resistance, he taught growing numbers of black and white students how to organize sit-ins and other forms of nonviolent action to confront the immorality of segregation. His workshops led to the Nashville sit-in movement and desegregation campaign.
Initially, Lawson had to convince other African Americans that nonviolence was “deeply rooted in the spirituality of Jesus [and] the prophetic stories of the Hebrew Bible.” For Lawson, the civil rights protests were not just a political movement. “It was a moment in history when God saw fit to call America back from the depths of moral depravity and onto his path of righteousness.” John Lewis calls him “the architect of the nonviolent movement in America.”
James Lawson helped coordinate the Freedom Rides in 1961 and the Meredith March in 1966, found the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, and served as director of nonviolent education for SCLC. While working as a pastor at the Centenary Methodist Church in Memphis, he played a major role in the sanitation workers strike of 1968.
In 1974, Lawson moved to Los Angles to serve as pastor of Holman Methodist Church, his base for the next thirty years. He hosted a weekly call-in show, “Lawson Live,” where he discussed social and human rights issues affecting minority communities. For many decades, he has spoken out against racism, and challenged U.S. military involvement throughout the world. He has worked extensively with Janitors for Justice and other unions in Los Angeles, and continues to teach and offer workshops in active nonviolence to this day. He has taught at Harvard, USC, UCLA, Claremont and Vanderbilt. He is featured in the film, “A Force More Powerful.” He and his wife Dorothy live in Los Angeles, CA.