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Profile: James Lawson, civil rights advocate

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*

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 interview.

Q: Let's start with your childhood. Who or what were some of the greatest influences on you as a child?

A: 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.

The 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 … 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. … 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. … 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 secure community.

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 … 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 … either an Urban League or an NAACP. … 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?

A: 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. … That led me quietly as an elementary school youngster into experimenting with what later on I came to call nonviolence.

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 sorts.

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 … 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 … 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.

Forty-seven was 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 … 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 … 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 … 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 events.

The Montgomery bus boycott was still going on then. … (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.

Along 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.

Those 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?

A: 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 … (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.

I 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.

A: 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.

Dorothy 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.

Q: 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.

I 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 … 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.

At one point in our conversation, I said that … 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.

He 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 … 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. … 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.

A: 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.

The black 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. … 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?

A: 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.

# # #

*McAnally 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.

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