Check It Out

“Human Advancement Does Not Need Special People”

WT Interview

The Rev. James Lawson, the leading nonviolence theorist and tactician of the Civil Rights Movement, teaches a monthly nonviolence workshop, Los Angeles, June 2018. He has led these classes for over 20 years. “This is not per se a workshop for activists,” he said. “Gandhi said that oftentimes doing something that is not connected with the realities of where you are is like doing nothing . . . I don’t come at this from a theoretical stance but from a far more human-engaged stance of trying to live in the 20th century and now in the 21st century.” On Sept. 22, Rev. Lawson will turn 90. Photo by DEBRA WILLIAMS.


The Rev. James Lawson, the leading nonviolence theorist and tactician of the Civil Rights Movement, speaks to the World Tribune on the role of youth, peace and his advice to the 50,000 Lions of Justice.

World Tribune: The Civil Rights Movement was powered by youth. Why is it important for people to stand up while they are young?

Rev. James Lawson: When we are young, we’re developing in the direction of our humanity, of our personhood, of our self. Those are very formative years, and we are pushing ourselves toward becoming an autonomous human being; we are aspiring with energy for development and growth. Those are important years for young people to express their character and their idealism.

WT: What do you believe is the mission of young people?

Lawson: The primary task for young people is to accept the wonder and power of the gift of life—to accept the astonishing fact of their life. It is the most precious and immediate entity that they will ever have. Young people not only have to gladly accept their gift of life, no matter the circumstances, but also learn how to live. They must learn to love and learn the power of their life.

This is the starting place for each of us. This understanding runs throughout our life and determines how we use our life through each of its seasons. It will measure the power of our life. This is the beginning of the idea of nonviolence taught by Gandhi, Buddha and Jesus. Each one of them accepted and owned this gift of life.

Rev. Lawson with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. at a press conference, Memphis, Tenn., April 3, 1968. Photo by UNIVERSITY OF MEMPHIS PUBLIC LIBRARY.

And it is out of that understanding that we learn to dismantle that which is harmful. The earlier we learn that this is who we are and how we will conduct our life, the better. This is where the fight for justice begins.

WT: Amid the deepening division and hostility in society, what do you believe we need to reflect on and change?

Lawson: Part of the issue in the U.S. is that far too many people do not see—when they look out upon our society, in the streets, across television or in print media—fellow human beings who are equal in the sight of God: “For I am like them.” They do not see the face of God, the face of life . . . A part of the issue and struggle is from the inside out, rather than from the outside in. Sexism, racism and violence, the poisons of these three elements in our history, have taught too many of us to only see the “other”; they do not see the connections with their own life.

WT: What message would you like to impart to the 50,000 Lions of Justice, who are gathering on Sept. 23 to stand up for the dignity of life?

Lawson: Human advancement does not need special people. Each of the 50,000 Lions of Justice should make justice and compassion their goal. It should not be a matter of if we are known but if we do the work. When we do the work, we will be amazed at what life has to offer.

Gandhi’s soulforce[1]Mahatma Gandhi’s concept of satyagraha, which the Rev. Lawson refers to as “soul force,” developed into a particular form of nonviolent resistance that included mass mobilization. The satyagraha theory heavily influenced the Indian Independence movement and Dr. King’s campaigns during the Civil Rights Movement. concept is based on the idea of people who link up with other people of the same mind on this journey. No one can do this work without recognizing this gift of life.

Bonnie Boswell Hamilton and Liz Nobukuni contributed to this interview.

Notes   [ + ]

1. Mahatma Gandhi’s concept of satyagraha, which the Rev. Lawson refers to as “soul force,” developed into a particular form of nonviolent resistance that included mass mobilization. The satyagraha theory heavily influenced the Indian Independence movement and Dr. King’s campaigns during the Civil Rights Movement.