2/11/2003 News media contact: Tim Tanton · (615) 742-5470 · Nashville, Tenn.
NOTE: A photograph of the Rev. James Lawson is available with this story.
By Tom McAnally*
Rev. James Lawson, a United Methodist pastor and civil rights justice
leader, is retired at 74 and living in Los Angeles. A counterpart of the
Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., Lawson played a primary role in the civil
rights movement. He continues to teach nonviolence and fight for the
rights of the oppressed. A UMNS photo by Mike DuBose. Photo number
03-49, Accompanies UMNS #065, 2/10/03
No Long Caption Available for this Story
UMC.org, the official Web site of the United
Methodist Church, is spotlighting the Rev. James Lawson, United
Methodist pastor and civil rights justice leader, during the month of
February. A counterpart of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., Lawson
played a primary role in the civil rights movement. Now retired at 74
and living in Los Angeles, he continues to teach nonviolence and fight
for the rights of the oppressed. Click on www.umc.org to hear the audio
Q: Let's start with your childhood. Who or what were some of the greatest influences on you as a child?
I was born in Uniontown, Pa. But my father, who was an AME Zion pastor
at the time, was appointed to Massillon, Ohio, Saint James AME Zion
Church. And that's where, therefore, basically I grew up. I think I was
age 4 when we moved there. And we lived there then the rest of our days.
And I did all my education in Massillon, Ohio, and later
Baldwin-Wallace College and Oberlin College, also in Ohio.
greatest influences in my life were obviously No. 1, my family - my
sisters and brothers, but my mother and father in particular, (and) the
church, of which of course we were a part always. I was baptized 22 days
old â€¦ and therefore very influential from the very beginning of my
life was the presence of God, the love of God, the love of the neighbor
as one's self. These were all quite important elements even before I
knew how to walk or talk.
Q: What motivated you, even in those
early years, to begin to see those injustices and then to become kind of
a foot soldier in the civil rights movement?
A: Well, there was
no way for me to avoid the issues. â€¦ At a very early age, I learned
(how) one could be treated simply because of the color of my skin on the
street, in the parking lot, even on the school grounds. Consequently,
very early in life, I had to make a decision. Was I a child of God as my
parents taught me? Did I belong? Was my life meant to be, or do I
accept these definitions of me that were quite hostile?
So I was
confronted at an early age, even before elementary school, to resist
the name-calling that occurred, the insults that happened. These names
and insults were not allowable in our home because they were not the
language of humanity. They were not the language of love and respect for
one another. So such words designating any kind of person, such words
as curse words, this I never heard as a child in my own home or for that
matter in my congregation, and for that matter, even in my neighborhood
or school. â€¦ We were to learn a language of respect. So I learned
early to resist the slurs and the name-calling and the insults and the
disrespect and to treat myself with dignity and then to learn to treat
others with dignity.
Therefore, for me, racism was not something
that was segregation in the South. Racism and prejudice were things I
faced in a community that was a good community to grow in, to be a child
in, a good community to be a young person in, a safe community and
My father and mother were immigrants. Dad is
the grandson and the great-grandson of escaped slaves from the United
States who went into Canada. And as a very young preacher, Dad returned
to the United States to eventually become a citizen and to work. My
mother was Jamaican. At age 18, she came to the United States with a job
in hand as a nanny. And there in Jamestown, N.Y., my parents met, and
there they married.
My parents â€¦ were not willing to take the
prejudice and the fears and the segregations they had. So as a
consequence, my father organized (at) every place he pastored in New
York and Pennsylvania â€¦ either an Urban League or an NAACP. â€¦ So to
resist the evil I came to understand very early was the essential
responsibility of my life and of every human being.
Q: Early on,
you became a committed pacifist, and you've been active in the
Fellowship of Reconciliation and that movement and others. What
influenced you in that direction? Was that an early point in your life?
I came to understand that this was the call of Jesus in my life - the
call of God through Jesus. And through the urging of my mother, in
particular, I decided that fighting with my fists and with anger was not
for me the best way. â€¦ That led me quietly as an elementary school
youngster into experimenting with what later on I came to call
It was not until my teen-age years that I became
aware of Gandhi, especially in the Negro newspapers of the time, which
were always in our home. My calling in high school became very clear to
me as the call of Jesus. The experiences in elementary school I came to
understand as God's way of claiming my life and Jesus' way of insisting
that I was to follow Him. And that became the paramount spiritual,
moral, intellectual discipline of my life by high school days and
especially then college.
And as that happened - and as I was
turning the other cheek on racial slurs and insults and then trying to
win people over from their prejudices and exposing myself to allowing
white youngsters to come to terms with the fact of my humanity as being
equal to theirs and therefore getting them to push out of their minds
the junk that their parents or their community or even their
congregation had taught them - I realize that this meant basically my
life was going to serve the kingdom of God and Jesus, and that meant,
therefore, there was no time for picking up civilian pursuits of various
In 1947, I met A.J. Muste of the Fellowship of
Reconciliation in college. He came to lecture on the campus. And I was
elated. It was a sanctifying moment for my life because then I realized
there was a Christian history, a long tradition, of some people (though
not oftentimes the hierarchy and the theologians, and often not the
pastors preaching and teaching it), but that there was based on the life
of Jesus that edge of people who insisted that love was â€¦ all
embracing and all compelling, that therefore in the spirit of love and
the spirit of Jesus one could not resist evil by imitating the evil, but
by seeking to overcome the evil with good.
So that threw me in a
dither. It was easy for me to insist that therefore I would be
resisting racism and sexism and later on violence and all their
different dimensions. The struggle came as I recognized that there was a
draft and the United States had just emerged out of World War II, which
I â€¦ supported in my youth, but that war itself was in opposition to
Jesus and that I could not therefore put on somebody's military uniform
for the purpose of using arms against other human beings. I did wrestle
with that extensively.
What that meant was that in '48, '49, I
came to the conclusion that to follow Jesus meant I definitely had to
oppose war and violence and militarism and the like. And so I sent my
draft cards back to the local board and said that I would not cooperate
with the classification process. That meant that in 1950 the FBI
arrested me, and in 1951 I was tried in the federal court in Cleveland,
Ohio, and sentenced to three years in prison.
also important because I began to read the writings and the
autobiography of Mohandas A.K. Gandhi and began to wish out of that
experience and then out of experience of the Fellowship of
Reconciliation, which founded the Congress of Racial Equality, to try to
begin to work on public accommodations. I recognized that the battle
against racism and segregation would be one of my concerns as a pastor,
as a follower of Jesus. And I understood myself then as wanting one day
to perhaps work in the South.
I began to hope that in the United
States many people would discover the superior form of struggle,
nonviolent politics, nonviolent conflict, and that this would become
something that increasingly people of color would use, as especially the
Negro would use in the United States. This meant that therefore I went
to prison in April of 1951. I was deeply committed at that time to find
ways in which I could help break the back of segregation and racism in
all of its forms.
Q: You soon came to Nashville, Tenn., not long
after that, and U.S. Congressman John Lewis in his autobiography
describes you as the architect of the nonviolent, direct-action strategy
of the evolving civil rights movement in the 1960s for training
leadership. And in his book The Children, David Halberstam refers to you
often as "the teacher." What were you teaching? And are you teaching
that same thing today?
A: I remain a committed baptized person of
the church. I remain one who wrestles with what it means to follow
Jesus in the 21st century. This is my personal journey. It's my â€¦
continuing journey in the community of faith. My Gandhi studies did lead
me to join the Board of Missions of the Methodist Church as a
missionary candidate. And initially in 1950-51 I was accepted to go to
Africa to what is now Zimbabwe â€¦ to teach and coach in a high school.
But the prison term interfered with all of that.
But I continued
to want to go overseas. So consequently, I â€¦ wrote the Board of
Missions and indicated that if and when I was paroled or released from
jail, I would still want to go overseas. And an opportunity came then in
1952 to go to India Hyslip College Napor, which I took. And I was there
then for three years as a Methodist missionary, campus minister,
helping them organize the World Student Christian Federation in India
and what was then Ceylon, and also as a coach, coaching basketball and
football and tennis and track and field. I returned from there to
Oberlin Graduate School of Theology in 1956 and followed the course of
The Montgomery bus boycott was still going on then.
â€¦ (I) felt again that I would one day work in the South. So I dropped
out of school in 1957. And in January of '58, I was in Nashville as the
Southern secretary for the Fellowship of Reconciliation, which meant
immediately I was traveling in the trouble spots of the South.
the way it became clear to me that while the Montgomery bus boycott was
a powerful and effective matter in using soul force or nonviolence, we
needed to demonstrate the next stage. We needed to demonstrate the
efficacy of nonviolence. So with a group of colleagues in Nashville,
Tenn., I joined the Nashville Christian Leadership Council executive
board as the chairperson of direct action. And through many, many
conversations and workshops, we decided we would launch a nonviolent
movement in Nashville to desegregate downtown Nashville, which meant
that in the fall of 1959 we began workshops on nonviolence.
workshops were a kind of summary review of what nonviolence was about
using strategies of Gandhi, the Congress of Racial Equality from the
United States, the Freedom Rides from the 1840s of the United States,
(and) especially the Montgomery bus boycott. We did a review of
nonviolence from the point of view of Jesus and the Bible. We made it
clear that nonviolence was not something secret or hidden, but that it
was in almost every generation of the human race from the very
beginning, though it was not called that.
I also examined how
Gandhi had made a great contribution by codifying nonviolence, by giving
it a name: not pacifism but nonviolence, by defining it as indeed a way
of resisting injustice and cruelty and violence through the best values
that the human race knows anything about: compassion and God and soul
force and truth. And those are some of the things, of course, that I
taught. I taught some of the weapons and techniques of nonviolence, all
of this taking place as we were preparing then to do sit-ins in downtown
Nashville as our first step towards desegregating that city.
Q: Could you give an example of what you would have taught?
I had people engage in what we called role-playing, where I gave them
real-life episodes that they were asked to act out. There were many,
many illustrations. I used the illustration of Jesus in the Luke Gospel,
Chapter 4, his visit to his home city, a village of Nazareth, where
after reading the book of Isaiah and beginning to teach from it â€¦ (he)
is confronted with a very angry group of home people who literally take
him out of the city intending to throw him off of the precipice and to
stone him for his blasphemy. And as this is described in Luke, it's
clear to me that Jesus resists them not with losing his cool or with
anger or with trying to run. But the way Luke describes it is that he
walked through the midst of them and went on his way.
discovered around this period of time, in the late '50s, early '60s,
that John Wesley performed that same stunt five or six times in his
tours of England preaching. He was confronted by similar mobs of men. On
one occasion at least, they dragged him by his hair through the street.
And John Wesley taught me how to face a mob because he describes in his
journal how, with great instincts of love, he tried to stay on his
feet. On one occasion, I recall, he threw off his hat so people had to
look him in his face. And he himself tried to catch a sense of who were
the leaders in the mob and then he tried to find a way of addressing one
of those leaders with a question that probed the leader past that which
the leader was trying to commit against Wesley's person. And so I
taught that in the late '50s and '60s. Still teach (it).
Q: Your work got you in trouble. As a student at Vanderbilt University, you were expelled.
The clear part of spiritual development is the notion that if you try
to stand for the truth and for the right, if you stand with love, there
are times when, of course, you will be persecuted and harassed. And
there are times when, in fact, you can be jailed and expelled from
school. So the expulsion from Vanderbilt took place as that movement hit
its power and its stride in February and March of 1960 in Nashville. My
expulsion from school was without a hearing, no due process, though I
was a graduate student in the school of religion and a student in very
good standing. In addition to that, the faculty was not consulted by the
small executive committee of the university that did the action.
and I lived through those days with, I think, a great amount of poise
and dignity. We found ourselves growing, our lives being enriched and
enlarged by the presence of God. We both lived to have lunch then with
the chancellor of the university who was at the center of that expulsion
and to confirm the fact that we had no animosity towards him, and for
him to indeed confess to us that this was something that should never
have happened. So what went around came back around in a new spirit.
I'd like you to say a word about Dr. Martin Luther King. What was your
relationship with him? How did he influence you? What one or two
memories or impressions of his life as it intersected with yours could
you share with us?
A: In one way, we came out of a similar
background, and that is that he came out of a very strong family of love
and a church family, as I did. And that was very much in common. We
actually are the same age today. I'm four months older than he is.
met Martin Luther King Jr. around Dec. 6, 1955, through the front page
of the Nadpor Times in India, where a major story in the front page was
of the Negroes marching, boycotting in Montgomery, Ala. That, of course,
was a big story in India, the land of Gandhi. And Martin Luther King
was the newly selected president of the Montgomery Improvement
Association, the MIA, which was the organization that was formed on Dec.
2 to become the vehicle to conduct the bus boycott that began on Dec.
5. I shook his hand then around Feb. 6, 1957, at Oberlin College, where
he came to speak. I had been invited by Harvey Cox, the campus minister,
to be in the small, private dinner after his speech so that â€¦ I would
have a chance to meet Martin King. And he and I arrived within about 10
seconds of each other in the dining room.
We visited, and we
discovered we had a number of things in great common - he a Baptist, I a
Methodist. But most of all, we recognized that we had a common
commitment to soul force as the way to help the United States transform
itself into a purer form of equality and liberty and justice for all.
one point in our conversation, I said that â€¦ since the late '40s, I
had thought one day I would work in the South, and maybe when I
completed the theological education I wanted that I might come directly
South. And Martin, without missing a beat, said to me, 'Come now. Don't
wait. We need you now.' And then he went on to say that there was not a
clergyperson in the South with my depth of experience in nonviolence or
my study in nonviolence. So I recognized that as another moment in which
I was being called from beyond myself, by eternity. And so I very
quietly - though I did not know what I was saying, and though I did not
know how this would happen - I said, 'I will come as soon as I can.' So
I'll not forget that.
So Martin King and my life then were
intertwined from that time until his death. And of course, I was in
Memphis at that time as pastor at Centenary Methodist Church and
happened to be chairman of the strategy committee for the sanitation
strike. The strategy committee was the community union committee that
worked together and managed, basically, the entire strike. The community
had asked me to be the chair. So I did.
So I saw Martin the
last day of his life, April 4, 1968, at the Lorraine Motel on two
occasions. By that time, I had come to sense that Martin King was God's
extraordinary prophet for that part of the 20th century in the United
States, if not the world. He was by that time the symbol of a massive
movement, and at the same moment articulated nonviolence and justice and
the best of the American promise in words that even today are prophetic
and powerful and faithful to God's spirit, and faithful to the best
visions that we the people have had about ourselves on these shores.
was a marvelous friend and brother. I relished our personal
conversations on a number of occasions. I marched behind him on a number
of occasions. When I, at the request of the Memphis movement,
approached him about one day coming to Memphis to speak â€¦ at a mass
meeting, he agreed immediately.
He was a man who loved to sing,
to dance, to eat, to preach, to teach. He loved athletics. On our staff
retreats, we played basketball or touch football. We went swimming,
walked the beaches. So he was an ordinary man who accepted an
extraordinary calling and did that with great faithfulness. â€¦ Not to
hear or recognize the voice of Martin Luther King Jr., in my judgment,
is to not hear or recognize the voice of God in the prophet Isaiah or in
the prophet Jesus.
Q: You've often said that the civil rights
movement was a human movement that sought to heal the people of America
and to proclaim a different kind of society. Say more about that.
One of the effects of racism and sexism and also of violence - and I
think to a more limited extent but also of religious bigotry - is that
we so particularize a group of people that we do not see them as being a
part of the human family. And then at the same moment, we then
especially in the Western world become subject to a kind of arrogance in
which we think ourselves to be superior to that particular group of
people, which we have in that fashion rejected.
movement in the United States at its best has always been a part of the
heroic struggle of the American people to make our constitutional
visions and vision of the Declaration of Independence become real and
true. â€¦ The struggle of the Negro for change has therefore been a
struggle to get America to become America for everyone: women, all
people of color, and in my own ministry especially, children must become
equal in our sight before God.
Q: Is there anything else that you would like to add?
May I just say that I'm very grateful to God for the fact that I grew
up as a Methodist. I think the Wesleyan message, John Wesley's notion of
mission and his being captive to the love of God as an overwhelming,
transforming power in his life that called him to join God in
transformation of the earth, is witness to the power of the Scripture
and reason and its tradition and experience -to me, I think this is a
form of Christianity that the world desperately needs. It's one of the
reasons why I am a Methodist and remain a Methodist and have never
threatened that I'm going to leave the church. From my point of view,
that's not a possibility.
And the folk who threaten us with
leaving the church, you know, one day the bishops ought to say, 'Well go
ahead and leave,' and let us go on about the task of the urgent work
that God has given all people of faith, in my judgment, to do today. To
reject the leadership of nationalism pointing us towards war and
division and hostility and the demonizing of one or many people, but to
look to the direction of Jesus and thereby to heal the wounds, to call
people to life and to make clear that the earth is the Lord's and that
the future belongs to God and not to the mismanagement of the earth -
that, it seems to me, is a task that we have yet to do.
# # #
retired in 2001 as director of United Methodist News Service and
resides in Nashville, Tenn. The audio profile was produced by Matt
Carlisle, edited by Lane Denson, and narrated by Hilly Hicks, all of
United Methodist Communications, and engineered by Profound Sound. This
Q&A, based on that profile, was edited by UMNS.