An Interview with Rev. James Lawson

Rev. James M. Lawson Jr., born in Pennsylvania in 1928, has been highly praised for his dedication to nonviolence.

Martin Luther King Jr. referred to him as “the leading theorist and strategist of nonviolence in the world” and Congressman John Lewis saw him as an architect of the nonviolence movement.

David Halberstam likewise credited him for sowing the seeds of change in the South, with the possible exception of King. To this present day, Lawson continues to work for social justice through direct action.

In 1955, Lawson travelled to India to study the life and work of Gandhi, only to later discover news of the Montgomery bus boycott and Martin Luther King Jr. back in the USA.

After meeting with the latter, Lawson relocated to Nashville to conduct workshops to prepare for protests, boycotts, sit-ins, and picketing.

He further enrolled at Vanderbilt Divinity School, which had recently opened its doors to black students, and this move stirred up controversy due to his normal behavior, such as eating in the cafeteria with white classmates and playing in intramural sports.

This led to two board members calling for his expulsion, though the white faculty defended him and his enrollment was reinstated.

Nevertheless, Lawson decided to pursue his degree in Boston. Years later, in 2006, his relationship with Vanderbilt was restored when he was named Distinguished Visiting Professor.

Lawson was the organizer of the Freedom Riders, an assembly of interracial activists who took on the task of traveling on buses across the southern states in order to exert their civil liberties as ordered by the Supreme Court’s anti-discriminatory mandates.

 In the face of opposition from local law enforcement and the Ku Klux Klan, the Freedom Riders encountered detention and brutality

 Afterward, Lawson shifted to Los Angeles, where he has been apprehended more times than during his entire tenure in the south. Working as the head pastor of Holman United Methodist Church, Lawson began to involve training in nonviolence as part of Christian education and shortly after offered free sessions to the public.

Now in his eighties, Lawson maintains that justice is fundamental to all faiths and that religious figures should no longer condone violence and warfare.

 Even though he carries considerable clout with elected officials, he feels that he can be more effective in grassroots activism than in the corridors of power.

–Diane Lefer

Diane Lefer is an author whose writing focuses on the complexity of human emotions and experiences. She strives to explore the depths of the human psyche and to bring to light the intricacies of emotions and relationships.

Her work captures the nuances of our lives and contributes to the larger understanding of the human condition.


What do you believe we are missing in order to transform our country into a better place, considering there is already an abundance of activism in the U.S.?

James Lawson suggests that activism does not equate to practicing the Gandhian philosophy of social transformation.

Gandhi’s usage of the term “nonviolence” or satyagraha–“soul force”–is both a lifestyle and a methodologically based approach to addressing human issues.

Its origins can be traced back to antiquity, but it was Gandhi who organized the steps needed to achieve transformation. In the same way Einstein pulled together 20th century physics, Gandhi is deemed the father of nonviolent social change.

In his renowned work, The Politics of Nonviolent Action, Gene Sharp uncovered 198 distinct methods of protest, including strikes, sit-ins, and civil disobedience, among others. He looked at different centuries and cultures to come to his findings.

Activists should take the time to research and study these techniques so they are able to be strategic in their approach, rather than simply being driven by their emotions.

Activists today often neglect the benefits of non-violent theory in their struggle.

Much of the activism is focused on trying to influence legislators and the president, with little success due to the power of entities like the Council on Foreign Relations and Exxon.

When a movement begins to arise, progressive social forces try to manage it in ways they deem appropriate. Robert Kennedy in 1961 was an example of this, urging the Freedom Riders to turn to voter registration. In 2006, when the immigration coalition started their marches, they were urged by political groups and foundations to focus on lobbying for a good bill.

BLVR: The ability to vote and register to do so undoubtedly played an essential role in the election of Barack Obama. Does this mean that progress can be made by using the voting system?

JL: Taking away the NO JEWS, NO MEXICANS, NO IRISH, NO WOP, NO INDIAN signs throughout the country has had an even greater impact on the American mindset than voter registration when it comes to accepting a black president

The desegregation of the sports world, universities, and professional life has done more to condition the nation’s thought process than the Voting Rights Act of ’65.

The country has seen positive change since the 1950s and 1960s, primarily because of the efforts to break down barriers of segregation, even though full access to the right to vote has yet to be accomplished in the United States.

Obama is one person and we are still working to build a democracy. Despite this, there remains unrest and avarice. JPMorgan recently announced that this economic recession is a great opportunity to acquire assets.

The funds from the bailout were used to provide profits to their shareholders.

There is no sign that these mechanisms which are damaging our nation have ceased or decreased. Despite the lessening of visible signs of inequality, the underlying issues still remain. African Americans are typically the last to be hired and the first to be dismissed.

Peace initiatives have been unsuccessful in hindering the militarization of our nation, or in preventing war, because they do not understand that justice is the way to true peace.

The peace movement has not focused on the importance of abolishing racism and poverty in the US, which are essential to the security of the country. Ensuring job and health security for families is key to the security of the land and its inhabitants.

The only way to combat militarization of the country is by forming a domestic coalition and addressing the issues here, rather than in Iraq and the Middle East. The US is the true pivotal point for the well-being of its three hundred million citizens, not foreign lands.

A picture of Reverend James Lawson can be seen, in which he is wearing a suit and smiling. This renowned civil rights leader has been a prominent figure in the fight for equality and justice.

BLVR: In order to demonstrate your opposition to the Korean War, you were ready to face imprisonment.

RJL declared that his refusal of conscription was not the result of a sudden decision, but one he had already made to resist segregation. He was cognizant of the fact that the early settlers in the US had come to escape from British and Dutch conscription. Nevertheless, he registered for the draft when he became eighteen and still had doubts about his decision.

His stance solidified upon joining the Fellowship of Reconciliation, an international pacifist organisation. Even though it was a time of peace, he was protesting against the draft, not a war. Then, when the Korean War began, he was sent to prison for his refusal.

BLVR: The war carries a great sense of urgency; the deaths of people, both ours and the enemy’s, are occurring in Afghanistan and Iraq in the present.

RJL: We need to take immediate action to reduce the amount of violence in our society. According to the Los Angeles Times, In 2000, 5 women were killed daily due to intimate partners or former partners.

In addition, domestic abuse is a major factor in pregnant women being hospitalized.

This alarming statistic is even more tragic when considering that 61,000 people die annually due to workplace-related deaths, some of which are homicides. It is of the utmost importance that we address this urgent issue.

It is unknown in this country how many unarmed people, who have not broken any laws, are killed on a weekly basis.

The Stolen Lives project, from the ’90s, reported four fatalities a week due to police forces. According to the National Lawyers Guild representatives in Los Angeles, the number was merely a fraction of the total amount of deaths, as there were many more in jails and prisons.

Which were unaccounted for. Officers were seldom held accountable for these occurrences. The ages of the victims ranged from 13 to 79, with majority being African American, though there were also Caucasians, Asians and Hispanics.

Two or three years ago, the LAPD SWAT team killed a father and his 19-month-old child. It was said that if they had been more patient and allowed an individual to negotiate, the tragedy could have been prevented.

The Christopher Commission report commended the women on the force for managing violent situations without using their firearms. However, the praised was given little to no attention.

The Chief of Police, Willie Williams, was asked if they would showcase the women officers’ ability to resolve issues without being too aggressive or using weapons, to which he acted as if the individual was trying to challenge him.

It was discovered that many of the women had master’s degrees in education or social work, but the LAPD offered higher wages than the other jobs available.

Therefore, the females that joined the force had a higher education level than the men, and their approach to law enforcement was different.

BLVR: While it is not to be taken as an excuse for police killings, one must consider that the number of such occurrences is relatively low compared to the amount of fatalities caused by civilians.

RJL: The violence we are witnessing is not the same as what is going on elsewhere.

As an example, Newsweek published an article this week discussing the history of terrorism in the US in the 20th century.

But does not mention the 6,000 black people who were lynched or the major riots in Rosewood, Florida and Tulsa, Oklahoma. where white mobs destroyed black communities. This is an example of the limited perspective when speaking about violence in the US.

Additionally, what about the death penalty and innocent people who have been executed? Scholars say that the US has the most violent history against labor unions in the world.

At the turn of the century, there were 100 people lynched and 100 shot down during strikes and labor disputes in a single year.

I am convinced that the violence seen on the streets is a result of more widespread violence found in our speech, thoughts and actions.

This is especially true in regards to the violence featured in films, as well as certain types of hip-hop and gangsta music.

As a society, we don’t do enough to address this issue, leaving it up to households and parents. We proclaim to have a high regard for life, yet we have never fully examined our own violence.

This is exemplified in our operations in Iraq, Afghanistan, and with the presence of 800 military bases around the world.

Which is a reflection of the violent spirituality found in the US. Ultimately, we have a problem as a culture as we consider violence to be an effective and successful method.


RJL: The Revolutionary War of 1776 is widely seen as a “good war” and it is taught that this war resulted in positive outcomes. Nonetheless, we rarely discuss the events that occurred fifty years prior to the war.

The rallying cries of Liberty and Justice, the town hall meetings, and the citizens (who were primarily white men) engaging with the colonial government and voicing their grievances – these topics are left out.

Additionally, we tend to forget about the civil disobedience that happened before the war, such as no taxation without representation, petitions and protests to King George, and the refusal to buy British cloth.

All of these forms of nonviolent protest and agitation are rarely studied.

In my education, I was constantly instructed that armed conflict was necessary because peaceful demonstration had no effect.

RJL expressed the opinion that those protests symbolized the strength of the people to be involved in decision-making and to refuse to accept unjust laws imposed by the government.

He argued that such a concept is an essential part of nonviolent theory and that a government needs the support of its people to remain in power.

RJL then commented that people who had not been exposed to the 20th century’s use of nonviolent strategies or studied Gandhi had taught him.

According to Gandhi’s methodology, it is crucial to engage in persuasion and awareness-raising prior to launching a nonviolent campaign, something which was occurring in the colonies at the time.

BLVR: Was it a mistake to give up on peaceful methods of protest on the part of the colonists?

In the 18th century, humanity wasn’t quite prepared to accept what was before them.

However, the 20th century saw a rapid growth of knowledge in various fields, such as biology, physics, psychology, and surgery; this included new understanding of the brain and


Alright, I understand your point- that we shouldn’t disregard the progress in science just because it was not employed by those living in 1776.

the heart.

Gandhi was the first to utilize the idea of “nonviolence,” which was a translation of the Jainism term ahimsa, which implies not harming living creatures. He employed this term in the struggle against racism in South Africa in conjunction with Muslims and Hindus.

When examining the history of our nation, most of the settlers had come from an area of Europe that was dominated by monarchy, oppression, forced conscription, and wars; they were unprepared for what was to come.

The only people that had a different thought process were the Quakers. This 17th century movement had a belief that there was a spark of the divine in all human beings, a teaching that resulted in persecution and mutilation of the Quakers.

However, during the time of William Penn’s rule in eastern Pennsylvania, from 1681 to 1740, there were no Indian wars, due in part to his pre-charter letter that stated that they planned to come as brothers, not with hatred or aggression.

During this time, no settler was killed by an Indian and slavery was nonexistent in the colony. In later years, Benjamin Franklin had a different stance on the Native Americans and wanted to eradicate them.

There has been little reflecting on the effectiveness of nonviolence in comparison to violence.

The Reagan Revolution is credited for the fall of the Soviet Union, yet the book entitled A Force More Powerful by Ackerman and Duvall explains the nonviolence movements of the ’80s and ’90s throughout the world, such as the Solidarity movement in Poland.

This movement initially was against the Communist government and wanted independent unions, but the attempt was crushed. Afterwards, Solidarity adopted the strategies of Gandhi and King, both of whom had been translated into Polish.

This was key in the struggle and, ultimately, in the fall of the Communist rule in Poland. During the middle of the 1980s, Lech Walesa and others included the demand for free parliamentary elections in the negotiations.

It is noteworthy that America is the only country to have ever endorsed a union-organizing effort outside of its borders.

During the oppressive apartheid regime in South Africa, union organizing was labeled as “Communist.” Our nation has a history of eliminating union leaders in Central America and continues to do so in Colombia.

Even though we do not formally instruct it, the US government tacitly encourages such murders.

I argue that there are four main factors which have conditioned us to rely on animosity and violence.

The first is what can be referred to as the American Holocaust, the destruction of the Native peoples, the original inhabitants, with their population dropping from 13-15 million to less than 250,000 within two centuries.

This has made us recognize the efficiency of violence: We seized, we appropriated their land. Furthermore, the establishment of slavery has encouraged violence and still does.

The photo shows Reverend James Lawson being interviewed.

I contend that racism and slavery have been major influences on our violent outlook. Additionally, sexism is comparable to racism; women were not given the same rights as men in the Constitution, thus being denied the right to vote.

The anti-abortion movement is simply a guise to maintain control over women, to assert that women are not equally moral beings in God’s eyes as men are.

Numerous aspects of Christianity encourage the “headship” of men. In 1996, the Southern Baptist Convention adopted this as a belief, and the Vatican maintains that women can not be ordained as priests.

If there is anything a woman cannot do, this supports the idea that women must be subservient and this perspective has been linked to family abuse.

To conclude, I believe that a significant influence is the “plantation capitalism” system which centers on avarice. This is not the kind of capitalism that Adam Smith described.

LVR: How would you define the term “plantation”?

RJL claims that the prolonged history of slavery has had an effect on not only economics, but also attitudes towards workers. He explains that the core of plantation economics was the idea that some people are not worthy of the rewards that come with their labor. Slaves were only given the bare minimum to survive, and were treated almost as if they were property rather than human.

RJL points out that this same idea still exists today in the form of capital demanding that workers do not receive enough wages to live on.

The State of the World publication is released yearly and shows that when it comes to overall wellnes.

The United States is lagging behind compared to some of its neighbors in Europe, Canada, and Japan. Unfortunately, this is not a topic that the American media often covers, so the idea that the US is the best country in the world remains.

When looking at infant mortality, literacy, and healthcare, among other things, the US is not doing well.

In fact, according to the Wall Street Journal, success is measured by how many millionaires and billionaires are being created. This indicates that the current social structure of the US is in a state of disrepair due to what has been coined as plantation capitalism.


Non-resistance and non-violence are terms that are often used interchangeably, but they are not necessarily the same.

Non-resistance is a philosophical approach that seeks to reject violence, but it also involves refraining from any action that might be seen as resistance or opposition.

Non-violence, on the other hand, is an active strategy that calls for peaceful protest and non-cooperation in order to achieve objectives.

BLVR: It has been recorded extensively how the civil rights Movement of the ’50’s and ’60’s progressed.

And David Halberstam wrote a great piece talking about your part in it in The Children. I’d rather learn more about how you have used the tactic of nonviolence since then.

Twenty-five years ago, JL started organizing nonviolence workshops with Local 11 – the Restaurant and Hotel Workers Union – in Los Angeles.

At the time, she wished to aid people in gaining the courage and character to unionize.

However, the workers were intimidated and harassed to the point of being unable to discuss their issues.

Therefore, a one-on-one approach was taken, which JL termed ‘evangelism’. This involved regularly visiting the person in their home, with the organizer being generous, kind, and compassionate.

The main focus was to get the person to talk about their fears, frustrations, and pain, rather than joining a union. JL found that this method would ignite a spark in the worker, enabling them to understand that organizing with others is the key to transforming their lives.

This was based on her understanding of nonviolence and experiences in the 1950’s and 1960’s.

I started to have conversations with other religious leaders to address poverty and economic injustice, particularly for those who are employed. In 1996, I called on these colleagues and formed CLUE (Clergy and Laity United for Economic Justice).

We asked local churches to create an Economic Justice committee, which would investigate and assess the congregation’s financial situation.

This included examining their members and staff and determining whether or not they were receiving poverty wages. We had to set our own example.

BLVR: Could you tell us about how you arrived at your own determination to practice nonviolence, considering you previously spoke about using your fists on somebody?

Yes, RJL said.

BLVR: — and you seemed to be quite cheerful when you uttered that.

When I was four, my Dad assumed the role of pastor at St. James AME Zion Church in Massillon, Ohio.

That period of my life was greatly influential in my development and growth. Sadly, it was also at this time that I was exposed to discrimination and prejudice. When I was targeted with racial slurs, my first instinct was to fight back, an idea which my mother opposed.

Alternatively, my Dad took a different stance, arming himself with a gun and displaying it to us. This is something I recall very vividly.

When I was in elementary school, I went back home from school and my mom had a chore for me. It took me to Second Avenue and Main Street, where I had to make a left turn.

On the Lincoln Way block, I noticed a vehicle parked at the curb with all of its windows wide open. It was a pleasant day outside and as I drew closer to it, a kid in the front seat shouted the “N” word at me. So, I went over to the car and slapped the youngster.

Afterwards, I finished my errand and ran back home.

When I discussed the incident with my mother in the kitchen, she gave me two pieces of advice. The first was, “Jimmy, what was the point of that?” The second was, “Jimmy, there must be a better way.”

That experience remains etched in my memory. There was usually a lot of noise and activity in our house with its eleven occupants and the piano and radios. Yet, somehow, on that day, everything fell silent.

I have no idea how that happened. What I do know is that during that moment, I heard a voice that seemed to come from outside and inside me. It said, “Jimmy, never again will you get angry on the playground and hit and fight.

Look for a better way.” From that moment on, I never again responded to my peers with violence when they called me the “N” word. Instead, I searched for a better way.

BLVR inquired, “Have you stumbled upon it?”

RJL recounts a later incident on Lincoln Way, in which he was running an errand. On this occasion, a child in a parked car yelled something at him, and he did not lash out, but instead went over and introduced himself. After engaging in friendly conversation, he emphasized to the child that it was not okay to call people names. At the same time, he had to get going for his errand, so he left without waiting for the parents.

BLVR: Was it a challenge to abandon your rage? Did you make the decision in the kitchen in that moment or have you been striving to do so consistently?

RJL commented that at eighty, one still needs to work on themselves; however, he experienced a numinous moment that had a lasting impression on him.

He further noted that the teachings of the great religions typically suggest to be angry without sinning, being foolish, or allowing the emotion to override one’s sense of humanity.

During those years between the 4th or 5th grade and college, 1947, I was a passionate reader of the four gospels in the Bible, particularly the “Sermon on the Mount” (Matthew 5-7).

After studying this message, I came to understand it not as a call to be passive or yield to one’s enemies, but as a powerful resistance movement

. I devoted myself to living according to Jesus’ teachings, and witnessed how it changed people’s lives for the better.

It made me stronger inwardly and showed me the power of turning the other cheek, going the second mile, praying for one’s enemies, and recognizing them as fellow humans.

In the late 1940s or early 1950s, I read the work of the black theologian Howard Thurman and was deeply impacted by it. His book, Jesus and the Disinherited, spoke to me, as it confirmed my experience.

Thurman recognized the anger, fear, and deceit that the oppressed feel and referred to them as “the hounds of hell”.

He also stressed the need to manage that anger, and argued that the Gospel of Jesus is a way to do that, redirecting it instead of allowing it to consume you.

I personally have found that following the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth has enabled me to distance myself from my anxieties and not be overwhelmed by them.

Mahatma Gandhi was known to recite “The Sermon on the Mount” daily in his devotions and meditations, something that I believe speaks to the Eastern religions’ teachings of managing our emotions effectively.

An image of Reverend James Lawson is present, which was taken during an interview. He has a distinguished and dignified look, with a suit and glasses.

BLVR: While religious fundamentalism appears to be on the rise, I’m intrigued by your approach to faith

. How you manage to be a devoted Christian and still be open to connecting with people of different beliefs as well as individuals who don’t practice any religion. Is this a spiritual orientation you possess, or is it more of a practical, political stance?

RJL: To be alive and human, one must have faith. This faith is what causes one to wake up in the morning and rise, to set goals and have a purpose for the day, to experience love, and even hate, although this is wrong.

When I heard you speaking of the belief that farmers have when they sow their crops, I initially considered that to be hope rather than faith.

Then I understood that I actually do anticipate the sun rising each day.

RJL confirmed with an affirmative “yes”.

The wish I have is not only a mere hope; it goes beyond that.

RJL: It is more than just hopefulness. We have trust in the universe and in life itself. This is why I am so critical of religious institutions; they often surround faith with too many stipulations and conditions.

People then think that to have faith they need to believe in the Virgin Birth or that the Earth is flat, but that isn’t true. Real faith is forging a connection to the present of life and this doesn’t need to be done through believing in a divine being.

I believe artists and scientists can demonstrate this and show us how to have faith.

Those of Focus on the Family and those of a religious background view traditional marriage to be of greater importance than the rights of homosexuals to have full human rights and dignity. However, the Jewish and Christian Bible both emphasize the idea that it is impossible to reach God if one is estranged from their neighbor.

It is commanded to love the immigrant and treat them as a fellow citizen. Jesus reiterated this by stating that we should love God with our full being and our neighbor as ourselves. It is difficult to profess love for an invisible God, if we despise those we can see.

BLVR: Is class the new separator rather than race? You have mentioned that the only successful movements.

Be it the Christian movement of the first century or the civil rights movement of the twentieth century, have all been ones in which people of all economic classes were involved.

RJL stated that a successful movement needs to incorporate a variety of people of different genders, ages, educational levels, and backgrounds.

This type of participation is a necessity for a successful and democratic nation in which people are able to work together to shape the government in a positive direction.

BLVR: Your frequent usage of terms related to the military has earned its fair share of criticism from some individuals.

RJL stated that Bernard Lafayette likened the workshops in Nashville to West Point in terms of their purpose of teaching nonviolence.

He continued on by comparing the military and nonviolence, noting that in both cases, troops are expected to be willing to suffer and perhaps even die for their cause.

He also noted that people have expressed their fear of being hurt when using nonviolence, to which he responded that those partaking in nonviolence must be aware that they may be injured or killed while doing so.

BLVR: Additionally, the rhetoric of war brings to light the potency of nonviolence, which is anything but passive.

RJL suggests that nonviolence should be carried out with the same level of organization and discipline as the military employs for violence.

This does not mean a passive acceptance, but rather a proactive approach that involves researching the target and formulating a plan of action.

Activist organizations should create both long-term and short-term goals, as well as strive to make the changes permanent.

Gandhi was not a fan of “passive resistance” or “non-resistance”, which were labels from the Christian world. He also had no interest in “pacifism”.

Neither did I. Therefore, I adopted Gandhi’s term of “non-violence”, which made more sense to me.

My criticism of pacifism was that the people from the Fellowship of Reconciliation and the American Friends Service Committee were claiming that love was not coercive and could not stand up against power.

However, this logic did not sit right with me since I was well aware of how powerful I was, and how powerful I had come across in the past.

The first thing I remember King asking me at the first nonviolence workshop I instructed for SCLC in Columbia, South Carolina was relating to power. Martin was facing pressure from pacifists who were saying he was too combative and determined.

I clarified to him that nonviolence does indeed employ power and that, as the Greeks define it, power is the ability to reach goals. It is something that is a part of life and necessary for growth, and I emphasized that nonviolence works to change, cultivate, and enhance power in every possible way.

Can nonviolent approaches to resolving conflict become ineffective? Does a situation reach a point where traditional means of amending it are no longer practical?

RJL proposed that a thorough examination of history must be conducted to ascertain if nonviolence will be successful.

He noted that violence has not been effective in the Middle East and has instead escalated for decades. He suggested that in order to truly know if nonviolence will not work, the US must decrease its military budget and invest in education for all children in the nation.

Throughout our lengthy history, people have crafted a moral code for themselves as individuals.

However, governments seem to repudiate those standards, believing that killing in their name or executing criminals is acceptable. As an ethicist, I firmly believe that the same ethical principles that humans hold for themselves ought to be applied to States as well.

To ensure the well-being of infants, we must all strive for excellence in our own lives, as well as demand that our institutions and government adhere to the same high standards. We must put an end to pretending that this is not achievable.

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