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James Lawson: Reflections on Life, Nonviolence, Civil Rights, MLK

Civil rights icons like John Lewis cite his influence often. United Methodist pastor and activist James M. Lawson is known as the "architect of the nonviolence movement" in America. Lawson was a close ally to the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and trained the young people whose peaceful witness at lunch counters in the South sought to end racial discrimination in businesses and public places. In 2016, at age 88, he looked back at the pivotal moments that shaped his life and ministry.


(Scenes from TEDx Talks, Oct. 2015)The Rev. James M. Lawson: “Our country is a country trapped, embedded, addicted to the mythology of violence.”

At the age of 88, United Methodist activist and professor James M. Lawson is still delivering a message he has lived--that nonviolence is the only way.

The Rev. James M. Lawson: “I have across the years seen all sorts of people change as a consequence of my own witness and the witness of the church and the witness of the struggle.”

Rev. Lawson was a key figure in the U.S. civil rights movement. He credits his parents with sowing the seeds of nonviolence that would shape his life and ministry. And he’ll never forget one fateful day in Ohio.

The Rev. James M. Lawson: “I had my first racial insult hurled at me as a child. I struck out at that child and fought the child physically. Mom was in the kitchen working. In telling her the story she, without turning to me, said, 'Jimmy, what good did that do?' And she did a long soliloquy then about our lives and who we were and the love of God and the love of Jesus in our home, in our congregation. And her last sentence was, 'Jimmy, there must be a better way.' In many ways that’s the pivotal event of my life.”

Another influence in Lawson’s young life was gaining leadership and life experience through the Methodist Youth Fellowship.

The Rev. James M. Lawson: “This was a training program in addition to our schools. Youth ministry at its best then was a ministry that said to young people, 'You are human beings, you are people of faith, you should be following Jesus. And you have to do the work of ministry.'”

Through M-Y-F, Lawson met scholars, pastors, and peers on a local and then national level. He made headlines when he refused to report for the draft in 1951, then served 14 months in prison for his anti-war stance. After his release, he traveled to India as a Methodist missionary and studied the teachings of Mahatma Gandhi. He returned home just as the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was in the news.

The Rev. James M. Lawson: “He does represent for me a prophet, teacher, pastor, theologian and probably the most important one in the last 100 years not simply for the United States, but also for Western history.”

Lawson had read about King’s success in leading the Montgomery bus boycott. In 1957, the two men of faith combined forces.

The Rev. James M. Lawson: “I told him I expected to come South one day when I finished graduate degree or degrees. And Martin said to me, ‘Don’t wait, come now. We need you now.’ And, I quietly, recognizing the challenge, said, ‘Okay, I’ll come as fast as I can.’”

Lawson wanted to lead a campaign that would build on the momentum of the bus boycott. He set his sights on desegregating downtown Nashville with sit-ins at lunch counters.

The Rev. James M. Lawson: “We had people who don’t believe it’s possible. So one of my first tasks, in my own mind, was to persuade them that there’s enough history of the sit-in and of nonviolent practice. The famous quote Diane Nash is, ‘I didn’t think nonviolence would work, but nobody else was trying to do anything about this system.”

The lunch counter sit-ins and a boycott of downtown merchants proved successful. Later, as a pastor at Centenary Methodist Church in Memphis, Lawson invited his friend MLK to speak in support of sanitation workers. The next day, King was killed by an assassin.

The Rev. James M. Lawson: “Our relationship and friendship is what brought him to Memphis in 1968 to the sanitation strike. I saw him twice on April the 4th, the day he was assassinated. What was left unsaid on that day, perhaps, might have been how much I appreciated his life and his leadership and to the extent to which I understood that to be indeed a carrying of the Cross that very few people recognized or understood.”

Lawson led two churches in Tennessee and Holman United Methodist in Los Angeles, where he now resides. He has taught a number of college classes about civil discourse and social change. Whether as a protestor, professor, or pastor, James Lawson’s life has been a powerful sermon, the kind his friend Martin King preached also.

As part of this interview, Rev. Lawson shared more details about what inspired him to befriend the man accused of killing MLK. Watch video.

Also, hear stories of other United Methodists who shared MLK's dream.

This video was produced by United Methodist Communications in Nashville, TN.
This video was first posted on January 9, 2017.

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