James Lawson

James Lawson

James Lawson was born in Uniontown, Pennsylvania, on 22nd September, 1928. After graduating from Boston University he became a divinity student at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee.

A pacifist committed to equal civil rights, Lawson organised student sit-ins demonstrations against segregated lunch counters in Nashville in November, 1959. This led to him being removed from the course by the university chancellor. Lawson worked for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) until he became a pastor in Memphis, Tennessee.

In 1968 it was Lawson who invited Martin Luther King to Memphis to help support the collectors' strike. On 3rd April, King made his famous I've Been to the Mountaintop speech. The following day, King was killed by a sniper's bullet while standing on the balcony of the motel where he was staying.

Lawson works with the Martin Luther King Center for Nonviolence and is the pastor of the United Methodist Church in Los Angeles. He is also national chairman of the Fellowship of Reconciliation.

Primary Sources

(1) James Lawson, Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee Statement of Purpose (14th May, 1960)

We affirm the philosophical or religious ideal of nonviolence as the foundation of our purpose, the pre-supposition of our faith, and the manner of our action. Nonviolence as it grows from Judaic-Christian traditions seeks a social order of justice permeated by love. Integration of human endeavor represents the crucial first step towards such a society.

Through nonviolence, courage displaces fear; love transforms hate. Acceptance dissipates prejudice; hope ends despair. Peace dominates war; faith reconciles doubt. Mutual regard cancels enmity. Justice for all overthrows injustice. The redemptive community supersedes systems of gross social immorality.

Love is the central motif of nonviolence. Love is the force by which God binds man to himself and man to man. Such love goes to the extreme; it remains loving and forgiving even in the midst of hostility. It matches the capacity of evil to inflict suffering with an even more enduring capacity to absorb evil, all the while persisting in love.

By appealing to conscience and standing on the moral nature of human existence, nonviolence nurtures the atmosphere in which reconciliation and justice become actual possibilities.

(2) John Lewis, Walking With the Wind (1998)

Jim Lawson knew, though we had no idea when we began, that we were being trained for a war, unlike any this nation had seen up to that time. A nonviolent struggle that would force this country to face its conscience. Lawson was arming us, preparing us, and planting in us a sense of both rightness and righteousness. A soul force that would see us through the ugliness and pain that lay ahead, all in pursuit of what he and Dr. King called, 'The Beloved Community.'

(3) James Lawson, The Southern Patriot (November, 1961)

We must recognize that we are merely in the prelude to revolution, the beginning, not the end, not even the middle. I do not wish to minimize the gains we have made thus far. But it would be well to recognize that we have been receiving concessions, not real changes. The sit-ins won concessions, not structural changes; the Freedom Rides won great concessions, but not real change.

There will be no revolution until we see Negro faces in all positions that help to mold public opinion, help to shape policy

for America.

One federal judge in Mississippi will do more to bring revolution than sending 600 marshals to Alabama. We must never allow the President to substitute marshals for putting people into positions where they can affect public policy. . . .

Remember that the way to get this revolution off the ground is to forge the moral, spiritual and political pressure which the President, the nation and the world cannot ignore.

(4) James Lawson, speech (7th November, 1998)

We recognized indeed by that time in a very real way, in a way that had been forged not only in marches but also in the jails across the South and before crowds of those who were antagonistic towards us across the South. We were convinced that we were out for the cleansing of the American soul, for the redeeming of life.

We recognized that we were out to heal this people of America of its violence, its greed, its disdain for human beings, its white western privilege, its euro-western privilege, and to proclaim a beloved community, to proclaim a different kind of society. A society that we could say was caught up in the whole themes of the scriptures of our tradition, the Kingdom of God, the Beloved Community, the Will of God on earth as in heaven, or the necessity for a new earth and a new heaven. In other words, we recognized that we needed to propose a different vision for the nation of which we were a part. That message, of course, has largely been ignored, I believe, by the nation as a whole. Certainly by the media, certainly by those who see superficially what they call a civil rights movement and did not recognize it as a human movement, no doubt coming out of the Black church in many ways, no doubt out of the Black Christian tradition in the United States, no doubt out of the spirituality that has shaped us, but nevertheless a movement that was concerned for how this nation had to change.

That my journey of nonviolence early on made me recognize that I could not put on a military uniform or carry the weapon of a police officer, that as indeed a person of faith I, therefore, had to recognize my hostility towards a war and all of its methods and all of its concomitant issues and so spent 14 months in federal prison as one refusing to be drafted, refusing to take a ministerial deferment or a student deferment during the Korean War.

So my own understanding, indeed, blended the business of resisting prejudice and bigotry, racism and segregation, and also resisting violence in all various forms especially in the form of war. But the peace movement wasn't sure that I was a serious devotee of a nonviolent perspective. But the second thing I want to say about this is that in these years of the peace movement in the United States - and I have been engaged as a pastor in a pulpit, as a teacher, and an activist in the community - in all these years I have been involved in the anti-American foreign policies whether in southeast Asia or Angola or in Central America or wherever, my voice and my body had been spent in joining the peace movement or being a part of the peace movement in saying "No."