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Organizing Principles: An Interview with Rev. James Lawson

James Lawson (Joon Powell/Wikimedia)

James Lawson (Photo by Joon Powell)

We are a mirror of the gift of life in that we can make the choice to give ourselves to a cause and to a way of life that is much larger than we are. We can give ourselves to a work that we will never succeed in fulfilling.

— Rev. James Lawson Jr. April, 2013

At age 88, civil rights leader, organizer and thinker Reverend James Lawson Jr. is still busy teaching all who will hear that nonviolence “represents a new day for activism.” Noting that we are each on a human journey to live in the manner that we respect and believe in, Lawson teaches that nonviolent social movements are a way to progress in that journey — both personally and societally.

In a recent Capital & Main interview, Rev. Lawson said, “I don’t see this as a fertile time for social change and quality-of-life movements. It’s too dominated by economic forces that control the country, treating people as commodities. The technology revolution, coupled with government spying and the growth of military forces, are a great threat to our society, and are almost hidden.”

“The free market,” Lawson continued, “means those who control the market are free to do what they want to do,” regardless of the impact on the rest of us.

Nevertheless, Rev. Lawson said he’s “pretty excited by the undocumented and unafraid people, and the important demonstrations they have pulled off.”

“Maybe,” he added, “the intersection between social violence, economic inequality and racism are the places where there are possibilities for struggle and movement.”

As for Black Lives Matters, Lawson said: “It has symptoms of a nonviolent movement, although it is large and amorphous and not yet shaped. [It] is showing the capacity to be in the press but not yet to make change — it got derailed by the presidential campaign when it moved to disruption [of candidate events].” Yet, Rev. Lawson added, “there are places where good stuff is going on.”

In a new book, Nonviolence and Social Movements, The Teachings of Rev. James M. Lawson Jr.,  graduate students taught by Rev. Lawson and the University of California, Los Angeles’ Labor Center director Kent Wong, describe five movements from the 1950s to the present which embody the philosophy and strategies of Gandhian nonviolence, adapted to the American challenges of the time in which they arose.

In each campaign Lawson explains the roots of the movement in question — its decision-making structure and tactics, as well as the discipline needed to build what he calls “a coalition of the conscious” that would help participants live out their highest ideals. One participant in the 1955 Montgomery, Alabama boycott against segregated city buses described the personal transformation she experienced this way: “I am filled up to my bones…it’s way down in my bones and when there ain’t no protest, I’m still gonna have it. I’m still gonna have my protest.”

This notion that social activism, while dangerous, daunting and often unsuccessful, provides gifts to its participants, runs counter to the often-portrayed version of selfless sacrifice made by high-minded idealists. Participating in a nonviolent social movement that strives to build a beloved community of activists, in which the means and the ends are interwoven, Lawson asserts, is inspiring and exalting. “What was different uniquely, about the training that Jim Lawson did, it gave you an opportunity to discover within yourself a power that you didn’t realize you had,” reflected Bernard Lafayette, one of the student leaders in the 1960 Nashville, Tennessee sit-ins led by Lawson.

However, none of this comes easily—requiring, as it does, deep reflection, discipline and hard work. Movements can easily go for the results and give little attention to the means. Lawson’s assertion that “nonviolence is love in action” sounds good, but often requires a deep change of heart in the face of brutality and aggression.

“I was fortunate,” Lawson said, “that I found the possibility of nonviolent social movement building. In 1947 I discovered the teachings of Gandhi; in a way I have been given an experience and a collective body of knowledge that’s been largely ignored, that’s pretty exciting to me.”

Asked whether our nation’s growing ethnic and racial diversity brings him hope for a better world, Rev. Lawson said, “The U.S. could be a bridge nation for the people of the earth, a terribly important model, if we could eliminate poverty, illiteracy, childhood neglect, etc. The U.S. could be an illustration that human history has never had — [a truly diverse people thriving together]. If we can do it, others can too.”


Nonviolence and Social Movements, the Teachings of Rev. James M. Lawson Jr. is available at http://books.labor.ucla.edu/p/83/nonviolence. For information on Rev. Lawson’s monthly teachings on nonviolence, contact wlj619@gmail.com.

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