James Lawson (b. 1928)

As I watched A Force More Powerful, a 2000 documentary series on nonviolent struggle, I experienced a revelation. One of the episodes showed Nashville lunch counter sit-ins during the civil rights movement. I watched scenes of James Lawson’s workshops preparing activists, including his lessons from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount and his use of role-plays. I realized that my own training methods were not new but that I was standing in a large group of mentors, including James Lawson. He’s a hero I revere as a role model in my own work. In 2013, millions of Americans also also saw at least a brief scene of Lawson’s training, portrayed in the feature-length drama, The Butler.
Daniel Buttry

The Architect of the Civil Rights Movement

When you are a child of God, you try thereby to imitate Jesus in the midst of evil. Which means, if someone slaps you on the cheek, you turn the other cheek, which is an act of resistance. It means that you not only love your neighbor, but you recognize that even the enemy has a spark of God in them, has been made in the image of God and therefore needs to be treated as you, yourself, want to be treated.
James Lawson

Sitting bravely together, black and white students withstood vicious name-calling, milk being poured over their heads, cigarette ash being flicked into their hair. They were pushed and shoved. But this was not taking place at a segregated lunch counter. It unfolded in a church, part of a role-play to prepare them for what they would face as they tried to desegregate the lunch counters in Nashville, Tennessee. It was part of the training program designed by James Lawson.

A trainer of nonviolent activists

Civil rights leader John Lewis called James Lawson the architect of the Civil Rights Movement. Lawson stood out as a trainer of many of the nonviolent activists who sat, marched and rode into the teeth of the racist violence that ruled the South in the 1950s and 1960s. He taught them the philosophy of nonviolence, overcoming their skepticism about the relative strength of nonviolent action compared to the use of violence. Lawson built up their courage until they stood strong in the face of beatings, dog attacks and fire hoses. He taught them how to think strategically about campaigns that eventually would bring unjust structures tumbling down.

Early Life & Influences

Lawson grew up in the home of a Methodist minister in Ohio. He learned about practical nonviolence from the teachings of Jesus passed on by his mother. He was so grounded by his love of God and the love of his family that he was able to stand up—even as a child—to the threats and assaults of bullies and racists. In college Lawson discovered the work and teaching of Gandhi, which shaped his pacifist convictions. Just before the Korean War broke out, Lawson returned his draft registration card because of his conscientious objection to war. His refusal to participate in the draft system cost him a year in prison. Following his release, Lawson volunteered for three years of missionary service in India. While there, he furthered his studies of Gandhi’s philosophy, and deepened his understanding of the power and moral character of nonviolence, which he’d learned from his mother and the teachings of Jesus.

Joining Resistance Organizations

When Lawson returned to the U.S., he joined the Fellowship of Reconciliation (FOR), a leading U.S. pacifist group that had long been engaged in resistance to racial segregation. The FOR assigned Lawson to serve as Southern Secretary, working as a troubleshooter in places such as Little Rock, Greensboro, and Birmingham. His main focus during this time, though, was in Nashville. The Rev. Kelly Miller Smith was the leading voice of civil rights in Nashville and head of the Nashville Christian Leadership Council (NCLC). The NCLC had been inspired by the Montgomery bus boycott and the work of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. The NCLC decided to sponsor a series of weekly workshops about how to break down the system of segregation.

Training & Creating Momentum

Smith and Lawson got to work recruiting students for the workshops held at the Clark Memorial United Methodist Church adjacent to the Fisk University campus. Their small group quickly grew. Many of these students went on to become the long-term leaders of the Civil Rights Movement: Diane Nash, James Bevel, John Lewis and Bernard Lafayette. Lawson designed the workshops using the Gandhian approach of investigating a situation and then looking for the best place to begin undoing the injustice. He trained the students on the nonviolent teachings of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount, on the example of Jesus’ suffering, on the teachings of Gandhi, and on the principles of nonviolence. Instead of turning on the emotive passion of typical black preachers, Lawson would grow cool and calm in his intensity. He challenged the students not to act out of anger, but out of a deep commitment and conscience.

As they analyzed the situation in Nashville, Lawson and the young activists realized that the system of segregation was based on humiliation and dehumanization. One place they encountered this was in the downtown shopping district. Lawson asked African-American women from Nashville to talk to the students about their experiences of shopping in stores where they were not allowed to eat and where signs reminded of them of their lower status. The focal point for the undoing of segregation in Nashville became the downtown lunch counters.

Next, Lawson turned to the workshops needed to launch such an action. First, he disempowered the racist epithet nigger, so that participants began to see it as a word that did not define them. Rather, it defined people who would use such a word. The students learned to immunize themselves to racist epithets that otherwise might cause them to lose their self-control. They role-played scenarios that they might encounter. Lawson taught them to curl into a fetal position to save themselves during a beating. These weren’t just political struggles, but moral ones, Lawson taught. It was a moment in history when God saw fit to call America back from the depths of moral depravity and onto His path of righteousness.

Nashville Sit-Ins

In February, 1960, the students Lawson trained launched sit-ins in Nashville with teams of black and white students sitting together at lunch counters, violating the system that kept blacks separate from whites. The students were orderly, polite, disciplined and well-dressed as they occupied their stools at the counters. First they were ignored, then the counters were closed. Students were arrested and hauled off to jail. Their places at the counters were taken by fresh waves of students. At first the police kept angry whites away, but after two weeks of sit-ins the police unleashed the thugs. Police stood back while the demonstrators were viciously assaulted, then they arrested the injured demonstrators for disturbing the peace. Even in the face of such violent intimidation, the students refused to end the sit-ins.

Further Resistance

Pushing the campaign further, African-American residents of Nashville brought their economic power to bear in a boycott of downtown businesses. When the home of a black lawyer supporting the movement was bombed, the students quickly organized a silent march to City Hall. When the movement prevailed in Nashville, Lawson’s training regimen became a model for civil rights activists in other cities. Martin Luther King, Jr. worked with Lawson to spread this kind of training throughout the South.

Broader Role in the Civil Rights Movement

James Lawson talking with an audience member following a panel discussion on the Nashville sit-in movement at Vanderbilt University.

James Lawson talking with an audience member following a panel discussion on the Nashville sit-in movement at Vanderbilt University.
Kaldari/CC0 1.0/Wikimedia Commons

But Lawson was more than a trainer. Lawson himself rode on part of that the 1961 Freedom Ride and wound up with John Lewis and others at the infamous prison known as Parchman Farm. After Lawson’s release, he continued as a leader in the struggle. In 1966, when activist James Meredith was shot during the March Against Fear from Tennessee to Mississippi, Lawson played a role with other civil rights leaders in keeping Meredith’s march moving to its triumphant conclusion.

Development as a Christian Leader

During this time, Lawson had become a Methodist pastor, although his path to the pulpit was an agonizing struggle as well. Because of his activism in Nashville, the Divinity School at Vanderbilt University expelled him. He later enrolled in Boston University to finish his theological training and returned to Tennessee as pastor of Centenary Methodist Church in Memphis. (The expulsion from Vanderbilt later became an embarrassment to the university. They finally apologized in 2006. Lawson teaches at Vanderbilt today.)

Activism as a Pastor

Even as a pastor, Lawson continued his activism. In Memphis, he advised the city’s sanitation workers who were paid so little that they defined the phrase working poor. As that campaign for justice became more intense, Lawson invited Martin Luther King, Jr. to help. Both men felt that the Civil Rights Movement needed to focus on poverty. That’s why King was in Memphis on April 4, 1968, when his assassination shocked the nation and devastated civil rights leaders. Lawson regarded King as the most important world leader since Gandhi. Nevertheless, living out his core convictions as a pastor and peacemaker, Lawson began regular visits to King’s killer, James Earl Ray, in prison.

Later Activism

In 1974, Lawson left the South to pastor a church in Los Angeles. There he hosted a national TV talk show on justice from a faith perspective. He continued his leadership in various movements against racism and U.S. military action. He trained poor workers on how to organize unions and struggle for justice through nonviolent methods. Even after official retirement he continued his activism, joining in protests with groups ranging from Janitors for Justice in Los Angeles to gay and lesbian United Methodists in Cleveland.

In all his training workshops, Lawson taught that fear and injustice ultimately are overcome by love: Love of God, love for one another, love for justice—and even love of our enemies.

See Also

Related Interfaith Peacemakers Profiles

Relevant External Resource