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On the Life of Pioneering Civil Rights Leader James Lawson

Legacy—The Rev. James Lawson at a nonviolence workshop in Holman United Methodist Church, Los Angeles, June 2018. Photo by Debra Williams.

The Rev. James Lawson, the leading nonviolence theorist and tactician of the American Civil Rights Movement, passed away on June 9 in Los Angeles. He was 95.

In the 1950s, he spent three years in India as a Methodist missionary and studied Mahatma Gandhi’s philosophy of nonviolence. He returned to the U.S. to attend graduate school in Ohio, where a professor introduced him to Martin Luther King Jr., on Feb. 6, 1957.

Lawson had been studying and practicing nonviolence from a Gandhian perspective for 10 years by then. As the two men talked, King urged him to come to the South immediately. “I said, ‘OK, I’ll come just as soon as I can,’” he recalled in an interview. “I dropped out of graduate school and moved. There was no fear in making that move” (Sept. 18, 2015, World Tribune, p. 10).

Lawson enrolled in Vanderbilt University’s divinity school in Nashville, Tennessee, where he conducted workshops on nonviolent direct action for the nascent Southern Christian Leadership Conference, making nonviolence the philosophical bedrock of the movement.

The students he trained launched sit-ins and other protest actions to challenge segregation. Many of them went on to become key figures in the Civil Rights Movement.

During the Freedom Rides, when activists traveled by bus through Southern states to challenge the segregation laws of public transport, they were threatened and sometimes savagely beaten. In one case, the Ku Klux Klan firebombed their bus. When the movement’s leaders decided to suspend the journey, Lawson’s Nashville students, with the determination that violence would not triumph over nonviolent protest, took the place of the injured riders and continued the journey at the risk of their lives.

When asked in an interview where their strength came from, Lawson said the students knew that what they were fighting against was wrong.

“Operating on fear is an issue of character. Courage is not merely the absence of fear. It is the taking on of tasks and concerns that are larger than the fear. It is discovering how to face your fears and moving through them as a whole person. That is what is essential,” he said.

“With fear, if you follow it from the perspective of adrenalin, it will mislead you in your humanity. But if you follow the fear through the perspective of your character at its best, or through the task of doing good—then the fear becomes an ally for your work” (Sept. 18, 2015, World Tribune, p. 10).

Described by King as the foremost nonviolence theorist in the world, Lawson remained a vibrant voice for social justice, giving lectures and teaching seminars on nonviolence well into his 90s.

In recent years, Lawson wrote Daisaku Ikeda a message congratulating him on his life’s accomplishments.

This exchange led to an interview with the Seikyo Shimbun, the Soka Gakkai’s daily newspaper, on Jan. 1, 2021, where Lawson said that Gandhi, King and Daisaku Ikeda had three things in common: religious faith; conviction that their faith must be engaged through their personal action; and a commitment to realizing noble ideals.

“The world’s religions need to follow the SGI’s example of making peace and conversation. They need to follow its way, which inspires people to break down their own hidden inhibitions against truth and join the human family. I want to say that the SGI is on the side of history. The SGI is on the side of eternity” (Feb. 5, 2021, World Tribune, p. 8).

Following this, Lawson spoke at the Soka University of America’s Class of 2021 commencement ceremony, where he said in part, “Let your life … enable the human race to retrieve its most noble visions of life” (June 18, 2021, World Tribune, p. 11).

July 5, 2024, World Tribune, p. 11

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