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.
Lawson 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.