James Lawson speaking at a community meeting in Nashville, Tennessee in 2005.
James Morris Lawson, Jr.
September 22, 1928
Baldwin Wallace College
James Morris Lawson, Jr. (born September 22, 1928) is an American activist and university professor. He was a leading theoretician and tactician of nonviolence within the American Civil Rights Movement. During the 1960s, he served as a mentor to the Nashville Student Movement and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. He continues to train activists in nonviolence.
Early life and education
While a freshman at nonviolent resistance to racism; CORE conducted sit-ins in some northern cities in the late 1940s and embarked on a freedom ride more than a decade before the more famous ones of the early 1960s. Consistent with those principles of nonviolence, he declared himself a conscientious objector and refused to report for the draft in 1951. He served fourteen months in prison after refusing to take either a student or ministerial deferment.
After his release from prison, he went as a Methodist missionary to Nagpur, India, where he studied satyagraha, the principles of nonviolence resistance that Mohandas Gandhi and his followers had developed. He returned to the United States in 1955, entering the Graduate School of Theology at Oberlin College in Ohio. One of his Oberlin professors introduced him to Martin Luther King, Jr., who had led the Montgomery Bus Boycott in Montgomery, Alabama and had also embraced Gandhi's principles of nonviolent resistance. King urged Lawson to come South, telling him, "Come now. We don't have anyone like you down there."
He moved to Ella Baker and formed the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) in April 1960. His students played a leading role in the Open Theater Movement, the Freedom Rides, the 1963 March on Washington, Mississippi Freedom Summer, the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, the 1963 Birmingham Children's Crusade, the 1965 Selma Voting Rights Movement, the 1966 Chicago Open Housing Movement, and the Anti-Vietnam War Movement over the next few years. In 1962, he brought Dr. King and Rev. James Bevel together for a meeting which resulted in the two agreeing to work together as equals. Bevel was then named SCLC's Director of Direct Action and Director of Nonviolent Education. He was portrayed in the 2013 motion picture The Butler by actor Jesse Williams. The film chronicles Lawson's training sessions during the civil rights protests of the 1950s and 1960s.
His expulsion from Vanderbilt University as a result of these activities became one of the celebrated incidents of the era and eventually a source of deep embarrassment to the university. During the 2006 graduation ceremony Vanderbilt apologized for its treatment of Lawson; he is now a member of its faculty. He took part in a well-publicized three day Freedom Ride commemorative program sponsored by Vanderbilt University's Office of Active Citizenship and Service in January 2007. The program included an educational bus tour to Montgomery and Birmingham, Alabama. Participants also included fellow Civil Rights activists Jim Zwerg, Diane Nash, Bernard Lafayette, Rev. C.T. Vivian as well as John Seigenthaler, journalists and approximately 180 students, faculty and administrators from Vanderbilt, Fisk, Tennessee State University and American Baptist College.
He became pastor of Centenary Methodist Church in Memphis, Tennessee in 1962. In 1968, when black sanitation workers went on strike for higher wages and union recognition after two of their co-workers were accidentally crushed to death, Reverend Lawson served as chairman of their strike committee. (See Memphis Sanitation Strike) He invited Dr. King to Memphis in April 1968 to dramatize their struggle, which had adopted the slogan I am a Man. Dr. King delivered his famous "Mountaintop" speech in support of the strike in Memphis on April 3, 1968, the day before his assassination.
Later, he moved to Los Angeles in 1974 to lead Holman United Methodist Church where he served for twenty-five years before retiring in 1999. He has continued to train activists in nonviolence and to work in support of a number of causes, including immigrants' rights in the United States and the rights of Palestinians, opposition to the war in Iraq, and workers' rights to a living wage. In 2004, he received the Community of Christ International Peace Award.
He has been spearheading California State University Northridge's (CSUN) Civil Discourse and Social Change initiative as a Visiting Faculty for the academic year of 2010/11. The initiative builds on CSUN's history of activism and diversity, while focusing on the current budget and policy battles surrounding education. Reverend Lawson has helped bring perspective, knowledge, and strategic thinking to the campus.
- "Freedom Riders: James Lawson". PBS. Retrieved 5 March 2014.
- Hughes, Richard A. (2009). Pro-justice Ethics: From Lament to Nonviolence. New York: Peter Lang. p. 226.
- Catsam, Derek Charles (2009). Freedom's Main Line: The Journey of Reconciliation and the Freedom Rides. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky.
- "James M. Larson, Jr." in Notable Black American Men Book II, Thomson Gale, Reproduced in Biography Resource Center (Fee).
- Houck, Davis W.; Dixon, David E. (2006). Rhetoric, religion and the civil rights movement, 1954-1965. Baylor University Press. pp. 356–363.
- Mogul, Jonathan; Barbara de Boinville, ed. "A Force More Powerful (English study guide)" (PDF). pp. 4 et seq. Retrieved 2008-04-19.
- "Movement Revision Research Summary Regarding James Bevel" by Randy Kryn, October 2005, published by Middlebury College
- Theo Emery, Activist Ousted From Vanderbilt Is Back, as a Teacher, The New York Times, October 4, 2006
- "Civil Discourse and Social Change". csun.edu. Retrieved 12 January 2014.
- Arsenault, Raymond. Freedom Riders: 1961 and the Struggle for Racial Justice. New York: Oxford University Press, 2006.
- Branch, Taylor. Parting the Waters: America in the King Years, 1954–1963. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1988.
- Burns, Stewart. To the Mountain Top: Martin Luther King Jr.'s Sacred Mission to Save American, 1955–1968. New York: Harper Collins, 2004.
- Clayborne, Carson. In Struggle: SNCC and the Black Awakening of the 1960s. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1981.
- Conkin, Paul K. Gone with the Ivy: A Biography of Vanderbilt University. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1985.
- Halberstam, David. The Children. New York: Random House. 1998.
- Riches, William T. Martin. The Civil Rights Movement: Struggle and Resistance. New York: Palgrave, 2004.
- Sumner, David. "James Lawson, Jr." Tennessee Encyclopedia of History and Culture. Ed. Carroll Van West. Nashville: Rutledge Hill Press, 1998.
- Zinn, Howard. SNCC: The New Abolitionists. Cambridge, Mass.: South End Press, 2002.
- "James Lawson Named 2005 Vanderbilt University Distinguished Alumnus." Tennessee Tribune, 22 December 2005.
- Mielczarek, Natalia. "Vanderbilt Hires Ex-student It Expelled for Civil Rights Activism." Tennessean, 19 January 2006.
- Summer, David E. "The Publisher and the Preacher: Racial Conflict at Vanderbilt University." Tennessee Historical Quarterly LVI (Spring 1997): 34–43.
- Wynn, Linda T. "The Dawning of a New Day: The Nashville Sit-Ins, February 13, 1960 – May 10, 1960." Tennessee Historical Quarterly L (Spring 1991): 42–54.
- "Interview: Rev. James Lawson." A Force More Powerful: Nashville 1960 at the Wayback Machine (archived December 9, 2004) (Accessed 28 November 2008).
- A short UK page on Lawson
- Vanderbilt Announces Distinguished Alumnus award
- A Force More Powerful - Interview: Rev. James Lawson at the Wayback Machine (archived December 9, 2004)
- Lawson to Return to Vanderbilt as Professor at the Wayback Machine (archived July 13, 2007)
- “The Rev. James Lawson: An Advocate of Peaceful Change” - an interview on National Public Radio
- Oral History Interview with James M. Lawson from the Southern Oral History Program at Oral Histories of the American South
- The Non-Violent Struggle. Course Podcast series from Rev. James Lawson, Fall 2007, Vanderbilt University.
- "The Butler (2013) - IMDb". imdb.com. Retrieved 2014-04-04.