From the Worldwide Faith News archives www.wfn.org
Profile: James Lawson, civil rights advocate
Tue, 11 Feb 2003 15:05:36 -0600
Feb. 11, 2003 News media contact: Tim Tanton7(615)742-54707Nashville, Tenn.
NOTE: A photograph of the Rev. James Lawson is available with 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 interview.
By Tom McAnally*
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
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
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
In 1947, I met A.J. Musti 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
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
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
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
Q: Your work got you in trouble. As a student at Vanderbilt University, you
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
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.
United Methodist News Service
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