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James Lawson: Gandhi, Jesus and Mom

James Lawson

James Lawson may be the most important Civil Rights leader you’ve never heard of. He was a leading proponent and teacher of nonviolence, the idea at the heart of the movement’s strategy. He started teaching a weekly workshop on nonviolence in Nashville in 1959. From these sessions would come the Nashville Student Movement and, in large part, SNCC (the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee), as well as an all-star lineup of leaders, including John Lewis, Diane Nash, James Bevel, Bernard Lafayette and C.T. Vivian.

Lawson was born in 1928, the son and grandson of Methodist ministers, and grew up in Massillon, OH. In 1947, his freshman year at Baldwin Wallace College in southern Ohio, he joined two organizations dedicated to nonviolence, the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE, which would later organize the Freedom Rides) and the Fellowship of Reconciliation (FOR). A year later he withdrew his draft registration, for which he soon serve 13 months in federal prison.

He served as a missionary to India 1953-56 and moved to Nashville in 1958. In addition to his weekly workshop, he worked as a minister and studied as a graduate student at the divinity school of Vanderbilt University. At the height of the sit-in movement in Nashville in 1960, the university expelled him.

In my interview with him in May 2007 he talked about his early encounters with Gandhi and the idea of nonviolence:

I probably first met Gandhi in the pages of black newspapers in our home. I didn’t really read a book by Gandhi until 1947, my first year of college. A lot of black newspapers saw Gandhi as an ally in the struggle against racism and Jim Crow and American apartheid. They thought what he was doing in India and South Africa were of utmost importance for black people to know about.

When Gandhi says that when he read the Sermon on the Mount, he said something like this, and I may not have the quite exact words but I think I have his meaning. When he read the Sermon on the Mount, especially the section in Matthew 5:38–48, he said, “A light came on. This is what I learned as a child, and this is what I’ve been trying to do.”

So that’s his connection with Jesus, which he retained for the rest of his life. He rejected all invitations to conversion, and he rejected a great deal of Christian dogma, but he said, “If I am a Christian, as I am a Hindu, I am a Christian because of Jesus; and I try to follow Jesus.” And I agree with that; as a pastor, I agree with that. The test of being a Christian is not the creeds — it’s whether you follow Jesus and will allow the mind and heart and spirit of Jesus to come take root in you.

There’s always been in the Christian movement from the days of Jesus people who took the stance of unconditional love for life, for human beings, and refused therefore to take up the sword against any of them, as Jesus did.

That was a dominant theme in the first 300 years of Christianity. Christians did not serve in the Roman army or anybody else’s army. The rejected violence for two reasons: One, because it would cause them to have to pay fealty to the Roman emperor, to the Roman Christ; and also because it would involve them in the taking of life rather than healing of life.

I did not begin to call what I was doing nonviolence until 1947 as I accepted the language of A.J. Muste [a pacifist who ran the FOR from 1940 to 1953] and of Gandhi. That’s when I started using the language of nonviolence for myself. Until that time, I was using the language of love as I found that in Jesus of Nazareth, and as my parents, especially as my mother, influenced me.

After the Freedom Rides, Lawson was pastor of Centenary Methodist Church in Memphis from 1962 to 1974. He helped organize the the Meredith March in Mississippi in 1966, and he was head of the Memphis sanitation workers’ strike committee in 1968.

From 1974 to 1999 he was pastor of Holman United Methodist Church, Los Angeles. Named Vanderbilt’s Distinguished Alumnus of the year in 2005, he has been a visiting professor at the Divinity School since 2006.

Lawson was on the first bus into Jackson, on May 24, 1961.

James Lawson

Photographed in Los Angeles, CA, on November 11, 2005.


I recall reading or hearing somewhere that Rev Lawson had a conversation with Dr. King after an address delivered at Otterbein or Oberlin College following King’s Montgomery victory. In fact, I think Lawson was instrumental in King’s presence at the school. King somehow learned of Lawson’s visit to India and, despite King’s own deep academic background, urged Lawson to give up his intention to go on to graduate school. He was needed, King asserted, in the battlefield to teach the youth in the South how to use nonviolence. Thus, I gather, Lawson “took the road less travelled” toward what came to be the night school at Fisk, teaching John Lewis, Diane Nash, James Bevel, Bernard Lafayette, C.T. Vivian and others.

I would very much appreciate correction(s) of any of my recollections, and, if possible, being pointed to the source where I can read or hear further on the conversation I reported on above.

Posted by john shibley on 12 August 2008 @ 4pm

[…] of Peace: Portraits of the 1961 Mississippi Freedom Riders is an interesting collection of a then-and-now portraiture tied to the history of the Civil Rights Movement and the Freedom Rides in the […]

Posted by Reframing The Freedom Riders. | patrick on 25 May 2010 @ 1am

I like reading about our history. This was a good read.

Posted by Rich on 9 February 2011 @ 1am