Round. James Lawson Jr., apostle of nonviolent protest, dies at 95

LOS ANGELES (AP) – Rev. James Lawson Jr., an apostle of nonviolent protest who trained his activists to resist brutal reactions from white authorities as the civil rights movement gained ground, has died, his family announced Monday. He was 95 years old.

His family said Lawson died Sunday after a short illness in Los Angeles, where he spent decades working as a pastor, labor organizer and college professor.

Lawson was a close advisor to the Reverend. Martin Luther King Jr., who called him “the world’s leading theorist and strategist of nonviolence.”

Lawson met King in 1957, after spending three years in India absorbing Mohandas K. Gandhi’s independence movement. King would visit India himself two years later, but at the time he had only read books about Gandhi.

The two black pastors, both 28 years old, became fast friends over their enthusiasm for the Indian leader’s ideas, and King urged Lawson to put them into practice in the American South.

Lawson soon was leading workshops in church basements in Nashville, Tennessee.who prepared John Lewis, Diane Nash, Bernard Lafayette, Marion Barry, the Freedom Riders, and many others to peacefully resist the vicious responses to their challenges posed by racist laws and policies.

Lawson’s lessons led Nashville to become the first major Southern city to desegregate its downtown, on May 10, 1960, after hundreds of well-organized students staged lunch counter sit-ins and school boycotts. discriminatory companies.

Lawson’s particular contribution was to introduce Gandhian principles to people more familiar with biblical teachings, showing how direct action could expose the immorality and fragility of white racist power structures.

Gandhi said “that we, the people, have the power to resist racism in our own lives and souls,” Lawson told the AP. “We have the power to make choices and say no to these mistakes. It is also Jesus.

Years later, in 1968, it was Lawson who organized the sanitation workers’ strike that fatally drew King to Memphis. Lawson said he was initially paralyzed and forever saddened by King’s assassination.

“I thought myself that I wouldn’t live past 40,” Lawson said. “The imminence of death was part of the discipline we lived with, but not as much as King.”

Yet Lawson has made it his mission to preach the power of nonviolent direct action.

“I’m still anxious and frustrated,” Lawson said as he marked the 50th anniversary of King’s death with a march in Memphis. “The task is not completed.”

Civil rights activist Diane Nash was a 21-year-old college student when she began taking Lawson’s workshops in Nashville, which she called life-changing.

“His passing is a very great loss,” Nash said. “He bears, I think, more responsibility than any other person in the nonviolent black civil rights movement in this country.”

James Morris Lawson Jr. was born in September. Born December 22, 1928, the son and grandson of ministers, he grew up in Massillon, Ohio, where he himself was ordained as a high school student.

He told The Tennessean that his commitment to nonviolence began in elementary school, when he told his mother about slapping a boy who used racial slurs against him.

“What good did that do you, Jimmy?” » asked his mother.

That simple question changed his life forever, Lawson said. He became a pacifist, refusing to serve when he was drafted for the Korean War and spent a year in prison as a conscientious objector. The Fellowship of Reconciliation, a peace group, sponsored his trip to India after he earned a degree in sociology.

Gandhi had by then been assassinated, but Lawson met people who had worked with him and explained Gandhi’s concept of “satyagraha”, a relentless quest for truth, which encouraged Indians to peacefully reject British rule. Lawson then saw how the Christian concept of turning the other cheek could be applied in collective actions aimed at challenging morally indefensible laws.

Lawson was a theology student at Oberlin College in Ohio when King spoke on campus about the Montgomery bus boycott. King told him, “You can’t wait, you have to come South now,” Lawson recalled in an interview with The Associated Press.

Lawson soon enrolled in theology classes at Vanderbilt University, while leading young activists in mock protests in which they practiced accepting insults without reacting.

The technique quickly proved its power in Nashville lunch counters and movie theaters, where on May 10, 1960, businesses agreed to remove “No Color” signs that enforced white supremacy.

“It was the first major successful campaign to take down the signs,” and it created a template for the sit-ins that began to spread across the South, Lawson said.

Lawson was called upon to organize what became the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, which sought to organize the spontaneous efforts of tens of thousands of students who began to challenge Jim Crow laws across the South.

Angry segregationists had Lawson expelled from Vanderbilt, but he said he never harbored any ill will toward the university, where he returned as a distinguished visiting professor in 2006, and eventually donated a significant part of his papers.

Lawson earned this theology degree at Boston University and became a Methodist minister in Memphis, where his wife Dorothy Wood Lawson worked as an NAACP organizer. They moved several years later to Los Angeles, where Lawson pastored the Holman United Methodist Church and taught at California State University, Northridge and the University of California. They raised three sons, John, Morris and Seth.

Lawson remained active into his 90s, urging younger generations to leverage their power. Praising the late Rep. John Lewis recalled last year how the young man he trained in Nashville turned solitary marches into multitudes, paving the way for major civil rights legislation.

“If we are to honor and celebrate the life of John Lewis, then let us recommit our souls, our hearts, our minds, our bodies and our strength to the continuing journey to dismantle evil among us,” Lawson said.


This story has been corrected to correct the spelling of Gandhi.


Loller reported from Nashville and Sainz from Memphis. Associated Press contributors include Michael Warren in Atlanta.

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