James Lawson, Pioneer of Nonviolence

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James Lawson’s name is one that is probably not familiar as a civil rights hero among those who haven’t especially studied the movement.

Yet John Lewis says in his memoir, Walking with the Wind, “Little did I know that the man who would truly turn my world around was waiting for me in Nashville. His name was Lawson, Jim Lawson.”

It was from Lawson that Lewis first learned the depth of the philosophy of nonviolent action. Lawson was a field secretary for the Fellowship of Reconciliation (FOR); he traveled around the country giving workshops until he settled at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, where. Lewis was a theology student at Fisk University.

lawson2Lawson had grown up in Ohio. As a conscientious objector during the Korean War, he served 14 months in jail. After serving his time, he went to India as a Methodist missionary and became profoundly obsessed with the teachings of Mahatma Gandhi.

Lewis and his best friend, Bernard Lafayette, attended the workshops that Lawson offered. It was also Lawson who introduced them to the Highlander Folk School, where founder Myles Horton, Septima Clark, Rosa Parks, and others taught both citizenship classes and nonviolence as a means to ending segregation and acquiring the vote.

Buoyed by Lawson’s continued teaching and encouragement, the young Lewis and Lafayette along with James Bevel, Diane Nash and others went to a conference in Atlanta that led to the formation of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC).

Lawson was instrumental in the writing of SNCC’s Statement of Purpose in 1960. Yet just two years later, at the April 1962 anniversary  conference, he was not invited. The membership of SNCC was changing to more radical voices who advocated revolution rather than integration and argued for violence in the name of self-defense. Stokely Carmichael, James Forman, and Tom Hayden were among those new voices. While Lewis was elected to the executive committee of SNCC and was also asked by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to be on the board of the Southern Baptist Leadership Conference, it wouldn’t be long before he was sidelined from SNCC also because his heart and soul were with Lawson and King.

Though Carmichael directly attacked Lawson, saying that “deliberate self-sacrifice [was] an unnatural philosophy,” he continued to teach nonviolent resistance as an instructor at COFO (the Committee of Federated Organizations) in Oberlin, Ohio, which was training volunteer students, many from the North, for the voting rights drive of Freedom Summer. He also was active in trying to get the Methodist Church to abolish its principle of Central Jurisdiction, which meant that while many African-Americans served as bishops, pastors, and missionaries, there were many segregated Methodist churches.

A year ago April, I watched the CPAN coverage of the day-long gathering in Memphis that marked the 50th anniversary of Dr. King’s murder. I watched all the wonderful speeches from the modern-day civil rights icons, but what really made me sit up was the voiceover saying that James Lawson was to be the next speaker. I hadn’t known he was still alive. How glad I was to see and hear directly from this man who had such a powerful effect on the nonviolent movement and on John Lewis in particular.

Dr. Lawson, who is 90, established The James Lawson Institute (JLI) in 2013 to educate organizers and leaders about nonviolence. A documentary about Dr. Lawson may be seen at https://www.pbs.org/thisfarbyfaith/witnesses/james_lawson.html.

 

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Atlanta’s First African-American Cops

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In the accompanying photograph, the first African-American policement in Atlanta are, from left in the front: Henry Hooks, Claude Dixon, Ernest H. Lyons; back: Robert McKibbens, Willard Strickland, Willie T. Elkins, Johnnie P. Jones, and John Sanders.

I recently read Georgia author Thomas Mullen’s first in a series of mysteries featuring the first African-American policemen in Atlanta.

After the first book, Darktown, appeared in 2016, he wrote an article for the Atlanta magazine about the history of the eight men who took the great risk of doing a job neither white people nor many African-Americans wanted them to do.

The second book in the series, Lightning Men, is newly released.

Mayor William Hartsfield was perhaps not considered progressive, but he was looking to bring Atlanta into compliance with mid-20th century civil rights laws. He met with religious leaders, including Martin Luther King Sr., about ways in which African-Americans could progress in their native city. He and Police Chief Herbert Jenkins (himself a member of the Klan) initiated the young men into the police force on April 3, 1948.

In his speech that day, Mayor Hartsfield acknowledged that 95% of the white police did not agree with the idea of having African-Americans on the force. That 95% would make life very difficult for the black officers in the years to come. In fact, they were not allowed to work out of the white police headquarters, but were consigned to a basement in the Butler Street YMCA for five years.

They were also not allowed to arrest white people, drive squad cars, or wear their uniforms to and from the Butler St. Y. Their beat was the Sweet Auburn area, consisting of black middle class and underclass neighborhoods. The area was called “Darktown” by white folks, and God help the black cop who tried to do anything to solve a crime that would take him out of that neighborhood.

Darktown fictionalizes two of those first recruits. Lucius Boggs is the son of a respected minister. He has a college degree and had lived a fairly privileged life for an African-American until World War II when he enlisted and was kept at the South Carolina training camp for the entire war because of superiors not wanting to send men overseas who might be inclined to tell foreigners what being black in the US was really like.

Boggs’s partner, Tommy Smith, comes from the underclass neighborhood of Sweet Auburn. He was on active duty during the war, in a tank division. He is muscled and has never been able to afford the sensitivities that define his partner.

One night they see a white man hit a lamppost on their beat. When they go to investigate, they find a young black woman with him. She has a bruise on her jaw. A couple of days later, they are called to the scene where her body has been disposed of, a bullet through her heart.

It is clear that the white force couldn’t care less about who had murdered her. Boggs takes it upon himself to investigate and begins to break every rule laid down by white supremacy of what he can and can’t do as a “Negro” police officer.

Thus begins a harrowing tale of the injustices heaped upon the African-American community of Atlanta by Klansmen in the police force, of ex-cops who form a group called the Rust Division who come in to help out the white cops when things need to be cleaned up, of the efforts by the white cops to undermine their African-American colleagues, and the almost superhuman effort by the black cops to continue in their jobs when they realize what they’re facing.

Mullen, who is white, started his research in 2012. He says in his article, “I learned of these officers when I read former Atlanta Journal-Constitution reporter Gary Pomerantz’s 1996 history of Atlanta, Where Peachtree Meets Sweet Auburn. He devotes just four pages of his 545-page epic to the city’s first black cops, whose swearing-in prefaced the coming victories of the civil rights movement. But I wanted to know more. As black people in the Jim Crow South, they were second-class citizens, barred from the front of buses, most restaurants, and public parks, and constantly at risk of state-sanctioned or mob-rule violence. Yet they were also authority figures, charged with enforcing laws that often oppressed them and their families.”

A transplant from Rhode Island to, eventually, Decatur, Mullen was fascinated by this bit of history. He saw it as a vehicle for depicting larger social conflicts. At the time of his research, Michael Brown and so many others were still alive, but Trayvon Martin had been murdered by George Zimmerman and a united effort to undermine the first African-American President had begun. Police violence against African-Americans was not yet country-wide news, yet certainly those in Atlanta knew only too well what police violence was like.

Mr. Mullen also acknowledges that, as a transplant from Rhode Island, might seem to be trying to muscle in on the work of native Southern writers. But, he said, “My past work has wrestled with what it means to be American and how the various tangled threads of our past have combined to weave us into who we are today. To write about American identity in the South means writing about race.”

The full article can be read here: Thomas Mullen talks about Darktown

The eight men came from a variety of backgrounds. Ernest H. Lyons had seen a woman stabbed when he was 7 years old. No police came to help. The incident made him want to be a cop. John H. Sanders was the salutatorian of his graduating class at Booker T. Washington High School, but he could only find work as a janitor. When they plus Claude Dixon, Willie T. Elkins, Johnnie P. Jones, Henry Hooks, Robert McKibbens, and Willard Strickland began active duty, they were called “YMCA cops” by some black people who resented their authority. White cops made false reports of wrongdoing by the black policemen and even tried to run them over as they crossed the street.

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Officer Claude Mundy (far right), the first black officer killed in the line of duty, in front of the Butler Street YMCA.

Mullen’s novel is well-written and certainly atmospheric, to the point where I could say it should probably not be read by everyone. For me, as a white woman, I read such books in order to bear witness to the victims of racial violence wherever and whenever it occurs. It’s often not easy for me. There were many times while reading Darktown that I had to close the book because of its relentless realism.

But if reading such a book is painful to me, I have to always remind myself of the pain suffered by the victims themselves, throughout our tortured history. It is, in part, my way of atoning for America’s original sin.

American Imprisonment

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American journalists Shane M. Bauer and Joshua F. Fattal left a notorious Iranian prison in 2011 after two years in captivity. A third journalist, Sarah Shourd, had already been released in 2010 after the three, who were reporting from Iraq, took a suggested hike and found themselves being accused of having crossed into Iran as spies.

Bauer, who is now married to Shourd, gives a brief account of the ordeal in his book, American Prison, an account of his real undercover exploit as a guard in a for-profit prison in Louisiana.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAPossibly Bauer, who works for Mother Jones Magazine, is the only person who could truly sum up the brutality of a private prison because he already knew what prison brutality could be like.

And in fact, there were factors in the American prison that he called worse than what he experienced in the Iranian prison.

American Prison,  A Reporter’s Undercover Journey into the Business of Punishment, released this fall, was named in The New York Times Book Review as one of the 10 best books of 2018.

Just when it seemed that there was hope for prison reform under President Obama, the country fell into the abyss of the Trump regime and the Sessions Justice Department. While Bauer’s experience happened in 2014, there was hope that the tide against mass incarceration and imprisonment for profit might turn.

Instead we have more imprisonment for profit, called detaining young immigrants, and rollback of sentencing laws.

Bauer’s book about one of the prisons operated by Corrections Corporation of America (since renamed CoreCivic) is a painful but, in my opinion, necessary read. One will not be surprised that many of the worst abuses are against African-American prisoners. There are no legitimate efforts made to rehabilitate prisoners, and medical attention is applied sparingly because it cuts the profits. Prisoners have died from neglect.

Perhaps the worst is the utter hopelessness that is reflected in Bauer’s voice at the situation prisoners find themselves in. He describes an inmate nicknamed Corner Store who spends a year beyond his sentence in Winn, Louisiana, because his mother lives out of state and the prison provides him with no help in finding a situation in Louisiana that he can be released to.

If possible, even more frightening is Bauer’s own reactions to being a guard. He starts out trying to be empathetic but finds himself becoming hardened as time goes on to a point where he is writing up prisoners for trivial abuses of the Draconian regulations and beginning to not care a damn about the human beings he is hurting.

Bauer underwent this transformation in only four months, before his photographer was discovered on the jail’s property and Bauer and Shroud skedaddled. The photographer was locked up in Winn; Mother Jones’s lawyer was able to get him released.

For-profit prisons operate on a state level, contracting with the state for prisoners. But we can guess that both state and federal prisons are badly in need of reform, as are mandatory sentencing and over-sentencing. Michelle Alexander began the discussion with The New Jim Crow; Bryan Stevenson continued it with Just Mercy. Paul Butler advocates for prison reform in Chokehold, and I’m sure there are other books out there that I not read that advocate the same.

The point is, these books will continue to need to be written until the United States looks at incarceration and sentencing from a true point of justice and not from a point of vengeance.

An Unexpected Lesson

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Have you ever gone on a journey hoping to find one thing and then end up finding something you never imagined instead?

I retired recently and went on walkabout for a few weeks. I carried with me both the grief of having had to euthanize my beloved cat and the cancellation of a bucket list event. Then I drove for two nine-hour days in stifling heat with no AC in my car and sometimes torrential rain.

I arrived at my destination to find that the extended stay hotel with the airy studio apartment I’d booked was actually a mean, dirty, decrepit, dark room with resident grasshoppers and other bugs Oh, and I was the only actual “visitor”; most of the other inhabitants were young women and men who had no other place to live.

My first privileged reaction was to walk out and go to another hotel. I would not get a refund, but I couldn’t imagine staying in this place for two weeks.

My second reaction came from a slap upside my head by my conscious, or the Holy Spirit. A voice said to me, “You think you’re so compassionate and you talk about wanting to help the disinherited. Well, how can you help them if you have never lived like them?”

And though my privilege was there, because I knew I would be leaving eventually, I soon became for a short time part of a community of the marginalized, who welcomed me wholeheartedly and were not only willing, but sometimes eager, to share their stories with me.

There was the woman with a newborn baby and a 2 year old girl whose five other children had been taken from her by social services. She was barely 30 years old. She and the children and her new husband lived in one room. She passed much of her time in a camp chair on the balcony outside her room smoking and talking to her friends.

I became one of those friends and learned that she had her GED and had completed one year of college. She wanted to earn a degree so that she could work for an agency that helped women like her. She wanted to get her teeth fixed because she knew that no matter how intelligent she might be, her appearance would be judged in any job interviews.

She also wanted to get her children back.

Then there was the young woman with the 1-year-old who had a full set of teeth and the biggest eyes I’ve ever seen. She also had a dry skin condition that prescribed lotion was not helping. The mother’s fiancé lived with them there and abused her physically and verbally. If she was talking with us, she would run off to their shuttered room when she knew he was about to come back. She didn’t dare have him her talking to us.

She came to trust me such that when another toddler got out of her room early in the morning, she handed off the 1-year-old to me to hold while she helped the other mother find her child.

Then there were the gaggle of children whose playground in the darkening evenings was the parking lot who offered to help me with my luggage when I first arrived. There was the young woman who laughed a lot and swore a lot and wore T-shirts with somewhat naughty messages on them. There was the handyman who had an advanced degree in linguistics. There was the woman who never smiled and complained a lot.

There were dogs and cats; one cat sat in the window of its owner’s room most of the time, a black cat that looked just like my Onyx, who I had had to watch the life seep out of a short time before.

There were hopes and dreams everywhere, and I listened to them and prayed with and for the women and children who let me in. I was asked my advice, which I gave hesitantly because in the wisdom of the world they lived in, I was a neophyte.

The people I met were of all colors and ethnic backgrounds. Yet whatever issues there might have been in this microcosm of society, none of them were to do with racism. So here are people who have their problems, their virtues, and their faults, out but not down, who could be creating the New Jerusalem. I do not mean to idealize poverty, but as this was during the time of the Kavanaugh-Blasey Ford hearings, and Kavanaugh’s assumption that he deserved whatever he wanted. I celebrated the humility I met in my hotel.

I thought when I arrived that I could barely wait until I could leave. When I left, I didn’t want to.

I don’t know what I’ll do with what I learned, but I believe that it was very important that I learn it and that I will be asked to use that knowledge someday. I hope that I will be up to the task.

Benjamin Lay: Abolition’s Prophet

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When I hear people try to excuse historical acts of racism by saying, “That’s how people were then,” I get apoplectic. I think of people who throughout history have clearly demonstrated they knew right from wrong, no matter what the prevailing society was like.

Now I have another weapon in my arsenal: Benjamin Lay (1682-1759) of Abington Township, PA.

Thanks to Marcus Rediker, the general public can know more about this fierce warrior for emancipation through his book, The Fearless Benjamin Lay: The Quaker Dwarf Who Became First Revolutionary Abolitionist.

In 1738, Benjamin Lay walked 20 miles to attend the annual Quaker’s Philadelphia meeting, according to Mr. Rediker. Keep in mind that it wasn’t until 1758 that the Quakers outlawed slave-holding among the brethren. Lay carried with him a hollowed-out book containing an animal bladder filled with red pokeberry juice. When it came his turn to speak,

“Throwing the overcoat aside, he spoke his prophecy: ‘Thus shall God shed the blood of those persons who enslave their fellow creatures.’ He raised the book above his head and plunged the sword through it. . . .He then splattered (the red juice) on the heads and bodies of the slave keepers.”

He was expelled from the meeting.

Lay was not a single-issue prophet, though. It wasn’t just his views on emancipation that caused people to disparage him. He truly believed and tried to bring forth a Utopia where everyone was equal and would live simply by growing their own food and making their own clothes and respecting nature. He himself lived in a cave, subsisting only on fruits and vegetables because of his belief in animal rights, and he refused to use anything that existed because of slave labor.

Mr. Rediker posits that Lay isn’t well known today because was not a “gentleman saint” like William Wilberforce, who led the British abolition movement. Lay was “wild and confrontational, militant and uncompromising.” Sounds like a great many prophets.

Being a little person as well as having a hunched back made people think he was “deformed in both body and mind.” It could be that his own “otherness” contributed to his strong feelings about slavery, but it is obvious that his main inspiration is from his understanding of Scripture and what was revealed to him.

According to Joe Lockard of the Antislavery Literature Project at Arizona State University, Lay also was known to perform what might be considered “guerilla” street theater to try to get people to confront the evil of slavery. He even kidnapped a fellow Quaker’s son to show the pain that enslaved families endured when slave-holders broke those families up.

The one book that Lay wrote, which was published by Benjamin Franklin, is available online at:  https://antislavery.eserver.org/religious/allslavekeepersfinal/allslavekeepersfinal The book is titled All Slave-Keepers That Keep the Innocent in Bondage, Apostates. It looks as if it will take some effort to read, but may be well worth the fortitude to understand Benjamin Lay’s devotion to the cause.

Lay must have felt well vindicated when the Society of Friends in Philadelphia did decide to discipline and/or turn slave-holders out of the community. He died a year later.

Mr. Rediker’s book is available in audible form as well as hard-cover and paperback. He is Distinguished Professor of Atlantic History at the University of Pittsburgh and Senior Research Fellow at the Collège d’études mondiales in Paris. He is the author of numerous prize-winning books, including The Many-Headed Hydra (with Peter Linebaugh), The Slave Ship, and The Amistad Rebellion. He produced the award-winning documentary film “Ghosts of Amistad” (Tony Buba, director), about the popular memory of the Amistad rebellion of 1839 in contemporary Sierra Leone.

An essay from his book appeared in The New York Times last year and the last paragraph is relevant to our times:

“In his time Lay may have been the most radical person on the planet. He helps us to understand what was politically and morally possible in the first half of the 18th century – and what may be possible now. It is more than we think.”

Why I Love Howard Thurman

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I’ve written about my favorite theologian before in this space, but I have to do so again.

Why?

Because no matter whether I’ve heard or read Howard Thurman’s wisdom before, it zaps me in new and different ways upon second or third or even fourth reading. He touches my heart and my soul to a depth where I just thank God for this beloved servant.

Pretty good for someone who died more than 30 years ago! I can’t imagine what it must have been like to have known him or sat in his congregation or been taught by him.

Even the way I was introduced to Howard Thurman has the divine written all over it. I was sitting in centering prayer when suddenly the faces of several older African-American women and men appeared in my vision. The faces sort of circles around until one man’s face came forward and the others faded away. A couple of months later I came across Pastor Thurman’s name during Black History Month. I looked up his writing and it pulled me in from the first. I bought recordings of him giving sermons and leading meditations. I bought his books. I learned everything I could about him.

Yet it wasn’t until earlier this year that I realized that his was the face I had seen. I was, quite literally, awestruck. A few days after that revelation came a notice in a diocesan newsletter about a retreat in Sewanee, Tennessee, that would focus on Howard Thurman and contemplative practices. I was signed up and paid within a few minutes. I no longer ignore such synchronicity.

I find such solace in his words, whether he is writing or talking about contemplative practices, racism and the disinherited (Martin Luther King Jr. considered him a mentor), humble ruminations about his own failings, his ecumenicism, and most of all, his deep, deep conviction that we are all united by a loving God who has a dream of whom we are to become.

The passage that prompted this outpouring is “God is making room in my heart for compassion: the awareness that where my life begins is where your life begins; the awareness that the sensitiveness to your needs cannot be separated from the sensitiveness to my needs; the awareness that the joys of my heart are never mine alone – nor are my sorrows.”

Thurman grew up in segregated Fort Lauderdale; his grandmother had been enslaved. He was the first African-American to matriculate at Colegate College’s seminary. He walked the walk, and he also maintained the gentle humility of someone who knows his own worth as developed in him by God.

tagoreIt also gave me great joy to see how Thurman’s witness often coincided with the great Bengali poet Rabindranath Tagore. I would read a passage by each man every morning and sometimes be amazed at the similar sentiments behind the Christian’s and the Hindu’s words. Tagore’s Gitanjali (Song Offerings) also came to me by chance long, long ago. They are short poems that can be appreciated by people of any and all (or even no) faiths.

“Thou hast made me endless;
Such is thy pleasure.
This frail vessel thou carriest again and again
Yet fillest it ever with fresh life.
This little flute of a reed
thou hast carried over hills and dales
And hast breathed through it melodies eternally new.
My little heart loses its limits in joy
And gives breath to utterances ineffable.
Thy infinite gifts come to me only on these very small hands of mine.
Ages pass and still thou pourest,
And still there is room to fill.”

 

 

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Julian of Norwich

Tagore was the elder, and perhaps Thurman gained inspiration from him. They both, I would dare to say, gained inspiration from Julian of Norwich, the 14th century prioress who had a series of divine revelations that she chronicled in “Showings.” Such a flow of love for all of humanity and all of creation can be felt in each person’s witness that one truly can’t help but feel that “all will be well, and all will be well, and all manner of thing will be well.”

Film producer Arleigh Prelow has spent years making a documentary, “The Psalm of Howard Thurman,” which is now in post-production. She first conceived the idea after Thurman’s death and, amid other producing and directing work through the years, she has interviewed Thurman’s wife, Sue Bailey Thurman, and many other people who knew and loved and worked with him. Actor Sterling K. Brown provides the voice of Howard Thurman. Funds are still needed to complete the work and donations may be made here.

Crimes Against Humanity

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Do you believe the regime when it says that it has reunited all “eligible” children with their parents?

I don’t, but when I saw that volunteer civilians were involved in the work of reuniting families, I felt much better about it. Knowing that neither the ACLU, nor the judge overseeing the lawsuit against the regime, is letting go until every last child is with its parent(s) helps as well.

What bothers me more is the term “eligible.” What a useful term for the government to use. “Eligible,” as if each child had ticked off the right boxes or come up with the right number or fulfilled some other benign requirement.

What “eligible” really means is that the government can’t return hundreds of “ineligible” children because it deported the parents and doesn’t have the will or the care to find them.

Then there’s the children who’ve been sexually abused while in detention and the ICE agents who have told them things such as, “Your mother doesn’t want you anymore.” That’s because they deported Mom and made her sign a complicated form that says she would give up her child without telling her that she had a right to legal counsel to determine whether she would leave her child with relatives in the US and go back to face the horrors of her own country alone.

Of all the scenes of hell that our national nightmare has introduced us to in the past year and a half, surely this one is the most “eligible” to be called a crime against humanity. Since it involves more than one country, I say this crime should be prosecuted in the Hague. Stephen Miller, from whose Satanic mind it was birthed, and Kiersjten Nielsen, who oversaw the program, should be the first defendants.

The attorney general belongs in the dock for avowing that this was a “law” that needs to be upheld. No, it wasn’t a law; it was a policy change that never saw the light of day in Congress and never saw any repudiation by the GOP. So perhaps international lawyers should be questioning Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell as well.

And when they all cry “I was just following orders!”, time for the head of the regime to take his turn in the dock.