September 22, 1928 –
Raised in Massillon, Ohio
While in prison as a conscientious objector to the Korean War, James Lawson wrote, “I’m an extreme radical which means the potent possibility of future jails. My life will be rather exciting, and (will) offer security only in the sense of service to God’s Kingdom.” After his release from prison in 1953, Lawson traveled to India as a Methodist church missionary and studied satyagraha–loosely meaning “insistence on truth”–the philosophical heart of Mohandas Gandhi’s nonviolent resistance to British colonialism. After returning home three years later, and keenly interested in the Montgomery bus boycott, he met Martin Luther King, Jr., who later called Lawson “the greatest teacher of nonviolence in America.”
Encouraged by Rev. King to move south, Lawson enrolled in Vanderbilt University’s Divinity school and began cultivating a group of potential activists. In a Nashville church basement in November 1959, he led the first nonviolence workshop for students like Diane Nash, Bernard Lafayette, James Bevel, Marion Barry, and John Lewis. Lawson taught non-retaliation strategies and instilled a deep belief in the potential of nonviolent direct action to achieve equality. “I discovered that practical and real power of truth and love,” Diane Nash later recalled about the workshops. For her, the principles Lawson taught were “invaluable in shaping the kind of person I’ve become.”
When four students sat down at a Woolworth’s lunch counter in Greensboro three months later, Lawson’s cohort of nonviolent activists were ready. They had been testing lunch counters since the December, and they joined the Greensboro students’ efforts by sitting in at the same chain stores in Nashville.
In April 1960, Ella Baker invited James Lawson to give the keynote speech at SNCC’s founding meeting in Raleigh, North Carolina. His influence with “borning” the organization was profound in its first year. He drafted SNCC’s original Statement of Purpose, which began, “We affirm the philosophical or religious ideal of nonviolence as the foundation of our purpose, the presupposition of our belief, and the manner of our action.”
As sit-ins accelerated in Nashville, Lawson was expelled from Vanderbilt Divinity School because of his central role in them. Ten Divinity School professors, including the Dean, resigned. Lawson later refused an offer of reentry as a student but in 2005 became a distinguished visiting professor there.
Lawson moved to Memphis in 1962 and became a pastor of the Centenary Methodist Church. Six years later, he helped develop an organizing strategy for Memphis’s Black sanitation workers. On February 12, 1968, 1300 Black sanitation workers went on strike under Lawson’s leadership. They demanded a pay raise, overtime, and union recognition. When the mayor refused to negotiate, Lawson and the workers persisted, organizing rallies and a sit-in at city hall. Union leader Jerry Wulf said, “They feared Lawson for the most interesting of all reasons – he was a totally moral man, and totally moral men you can’t manipulate and you can’t buy and you can’t hustle.”
Dr. King came to Memphis to lend his support to the strike. It was there that he was tragically murdered at the Lorraine Motel on April 4, 1968. Afterwards, President Lyndon Johnson sent federal troops to Memphis, and the sanitation workers achieved their demands for wage increases, union recognition, and a grievance procedure.
James Lawson left the South in 1974. He became the pastor at Holman Methodist Church in Los Angeles, where he continued to fight for workers’ rights and racial equality.
Clayborne Carson, et al. eds., The Eyes on the Prize Civil Rights Reader: Documents, Speeches, and Firsthand Accounts from the Black Freedom Struggle, 1954-1990 (New York: Penguin Books, 1991).
Charles E. Cobb, Jr., On the Road to Freedom: A Guided Tour of the Civil Rights Trail (Chapel Hill, NC: Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 2008).
Dennis C. Dickerson, “James M. Lawson, Jr.: Methodism, Nonviolence and the Civil Rights Movement,” Methodist History (April 2014), 168.
David Halberstam, The Children (New York: Random House, 1998).
Diane Nash, “They are the Ones Who Got Away,” Hands on the Freedom Plow: Personal Accounts by Women in SNCC, edited by Faith S. Holsaert, et al. (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2012).
W. Stuart Towns, We Want Our Freedom: Rhetoric of the Civil Rights Movement (Westport, CT: Praeger, 2002).
Peter Dreir, “A Totally Moral Man: The Life of Nonviolent Organizer Rev. James Lawson” Truthout, August 15, 2000.
Interview with James Lawson conducted by Blackside, Inc., December 2, 1985, Eyes on the Prize, Henry Hampton Collection, Washington University Libraries.
Interview with Diane Nash conducted by Blackside, Inc., November 12, 1985, Eyes on the Prize, Henry Hampton Collection, Washington University Libraries.