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Rev. James Lawson on His Friend John Lewis and the Long Road to Freedom

The civil rights movement’s leading disciple of nonviolent protest reflects on the life and work of the late congressman.




John Lewis attends the U.S. Postal Service Unveiling of the 1963 March On Washington Stamp on August 23, 2013. Photo by Riccardo S. Savi/Getty Images.

Martin Luther King Jr. called the 1960 campaign to integrate Nashville, Tennessee’s downtown business district the model movement for desegregating Southern cities. The Nashville approach led to the desegregation of cities across the Southeast including Atlanta and Memphis, along with Dallas, often with the active engagement of the local business community.

Rev. James Lawson was a key architect of that effort, together with young civil rights organizers John Lewis, Bernard Lafayette, Diane Nash, Rev. C.T. Vivian, James Bevel and others. For four months Lawson ran weekly workshops on the philosophy of nonviolent civil disobedience that examined the success of nonviolent campaigns around the world.

Rev. Lawson explains that he wasn’t training anyone but rather helping people learn “how you shape a life that is worthy of the gift of life.”

Lewis forged a lifelong bond with Lawson, who reflected on the late congressman’s formidable contributions to advancing justice.

Capital & Main: You met John Lewis when he came to Nashville and was one of your trainees in nonviolence. What was your impression of him as a young man?

Rev. James Lawson: When I first met C.T. Vivian and John Lewis in Nashville, Tennessee, the Montgomery bus boycott had just ended. The conversation in the fall of ’58 was that if we were going to have a second major nonviolent campaign, which a lot of people were looking for, we would have to do it in Nashville where I lived. So what to me is an incredible story is that, as we planned the campaign that became the Nashville sit-in movement in 1959, ’60 and beyond, C.T. Vivian and John Lewis were both in that movement.

In preparation for that campaign, we did nonviolent workshops in which I talked about what I had learned about nonviolent struggle in studying the Montgomery bus boycott, Gandhi and the Indian independence movement and some of the campaigns in Africa and Europe. C.T. Vivian and John Lewis were participants in that preparatory work and in the role playing and experimental sit-ins that we did. So it was a rather extraordinary group of people that came together in Nashville.

We became a model for many different places. What’s unknown is that the national plan showed businessmen and public officials how to begin desegregating the downtown areas, and it became the plan for Memphis, Tennessee, for San Antonio, Texas, for Dallas, Texas, for Albany, Georgia, for Atlanta, Georgia. It became the model that was passed from place to place by the Chamber of Commerce and the business community.

Capital & Main: That is remarkable.

Lawson: In Nashville the business people said, “We don’t know how to do this because we’re working in an area we don’t know.” So we presented the plan to them. There would be no announcements to the press, no notification to the police that the merchants should begin taking down the signs, altering their space, painting over signs, beginning preparation of their clerks and their personnel. We, in turn, would prepare a number of black couples who would casually walk into the various places and sit down at the counters or the restaurants to be served and they would be served, without comment.

Those who say that we were seeking publicity – we were seeking social change that could be done. Which is a far better motivation.

John Lewis was a shy young man who came to Nashville at 17, but he had already adopted Martin King as his spokesperson and leader.

Now John Lewis was a shy young man who came to Nashville, but he had already adopted Martin King as his spokesperson and leader. So down the road, John Lewis never broke with King on nonviolence.

John was far more aware that something radically different was taking place in the country and that it was aimed at his major concern, the dismantling of the segregation that he met as a small boy in Troy, Alabama, in sharecropping.

Capital & Main: Was he unusual, in terms of the top leaders that you trained, in that he came from a large, poor family?

Lawson: A great number of the people who moved to the forefront in their energy and work and sacrifices who came under my influence were people who had a similar experience of knowing that segregation and racism and its shackles on Black life were wrong, and that they, in their own hearts and minds, would not tolerate it. That they would work to change it if they could.

Capital & Main: And when you trained this cohort of leaders, did you have dreams for them?

Lawson: I did not call myself “training people.” I called myself helping people to understand what life is about for themselves, personally, and how you shape a life worthy of the gift of life. That’s one way I would put it today. John Lewis was open as a youngster to understanding faith and biblical faith, understanding Jesus, for example, in a way that would allow him to walk the right path. And to think in the direction of the freedom and equality that he knew was essential, that had to be done. And dismantling the society he was birthed in for the sake of justice and truth. He was one of those. Martin King had the same sensibility. I had the same sensibility. I met all kinds of people like that. So John was one of those people.

John Lewis was open as a youngster to dismantling the society he was birthed in for the sake of justice. Martin King had the same sensibility.

The whole business of how you struggle and how you live your life in struggle, and the value to the social movement and social transformation, is part of what I tried to prepare people to do. And I did that with familiar religious social stories that they could recognize, that spoke of their past, that they could identify with. I worked within the context of our Black culture and USA culture.

Capital & Main: What kind of stories?

Reverend Lawson: Well, the No. 1 story I used was the story of the exodus in the second book of the Hebrew Bible. The story of the exodus was early on embedded in the Negro spiritual[s] of the slave “Go Down Moses,” “Oh, Mary Don’t You Weep, Don’t You Mourn,” and a variety of others. It was a major theme in that large library of music. My contention was that the exodus story represents the first written account of a people who were held in slavery, organizing themselves to leave slavery and to launch out on their own journey. So it is the first written account of a people that engaged in the struggle to change their condition for the better.

Capital & Main: John Lewis went on to be the chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, and then later after he was replaced when SNCC started criticizing MLK and moved away from nonviolence into more of a Black power stance. What did you think about that – were you worried about what was going to happen to the Southern civil rights movement?

Lawson: Not really. That became a public affair in 1966 in the Meredith March Against Fear in Mississippi. And that’s when Stokely Carmichael and a couple of his colleagues joined the Mississippi March in order to introduce into the stream of that campaign notions of Black power. Which became a major story for all kinds of people, but not for the movement. Stokely Carmichael said he joined it because he knew that in marching with King he could give exposure to the development of his own thought out of Lowndes County, Alabama. That’s Stokely’s written word, and also Stokely’s word to me on more than one occasion.

As I’ve looked back on the shaping of SNCC, I call it one of my major mistakes, and I suspect that King would have agreed that we should’ve kept SNCC as the youth arm of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) so that the academic liberalism and political progressivism in the white community would not have the impact on SNCC. Our frame of reference in the movement was the historic racism and slavery and the shackles that had put upon U.S. life, but especially on Black life. Our frame of reference was not Karl Marx or capitalism. Our frame of reference was how do we get rid of this history that has been so painful to both the nation and to us, how do we change it? That’s a very different frame of reference. It doesn’t begin with the books or the essays of Marx. It begins with the concrete experience of a people or peoples, and from there to change and transformation.

Capital & Main: How did you feel about Lewis’ trajectory towards electoral politics? I know you make a really clear distinction about the importance of grassroots movements to any kind of fundamental change.

Lawson: John is, I think, a model illustration to be emulated. I disagree with John that the vote is the most important behavior for the citizen. I think the most important behavior of the citizen is to become an engaged, informed citizen. The vote comes out of that. So I think movements are critical to shaping democracy. And the changing of the U.S. vote pattern towards justice away from the status quo is the critical direction for the nation. It has to be that way. So John is the model for that. And I appreciate what’s going on right now, since 2018, any number of solid Democratic congresspeople have been replaced by new people. AOC is one example in New York. There’s a real need for a transformation for these people to be allowed to run. The national Democratic Party often tried to avoid having them run the last 30, 40 years. But there again I think the model of John Lewis is a great model.

Capital & Main: A model of someone who takes his activism into the electoral arena rather than drops his activism at the door and moves into Congress?

Lawson: We need elected officials who have come out of the John Lewis background – having struggled locally to get some things done, of a creative character, and learning from that process who then move into the realm of electoral politics. We need many more of them that are elected officials. We need the best of the organizers probably to evolve into the changing of the electoral arena, because at that place of city council and county supervisors, and congresspeople, and governors and legislators, that’s where justice has to be put into the arena. For so long it’s not been there.

Capital & Main: So for young people now who are active and really seeing the possibility for change, what sustains you, and sustained John Lewis and people of his generation, in a lifelong commitment to activism?

Lawson: This is where Gandhi and probably Martin King would both say that you cannot work for a future new world if you have no faith in God. Whether you call that a religious faith, or whether you’re working out of a mainstream of humanity and you give it a contemporary name that suits your own intellectual and inside work, there can really be no transformative change without a sensibility that the present requires the doing of justice so that the future potential of the human race can emerge. That the present moment means acting out of love in every category of life, so that the potential of life and the potential for transformation can take place. Which is why false gods, in the Hebrew Bible, are a major issue. Making money, that becomes a god, destroys a person’s capacity to see where his own life requires change and where justice can be done. The wealthy almost invariably tend to support the status quo, which happens with a limited status quo that they experience. They don’t experience the babies dying in the first year of life, or the folk homeless on the street. They can’t experience any of that; they can only experience their own well-being.

We’ve experienced in 2020 perhaps the largest, most idealistic campaign in these marches that have taken place in more than 700 cities all around the country.

Capital & Main: And are you seeing in this present moment more of an openness to seeing life in this more complex and visionary way?

Lawson: Oh, absolutely. We’ve experienced in 2020 perhaps the largest, most widespread, most idealistic campaign in these marches that have taken place in more than 700 cities all around the country, creating leadership in a way that perhaps no movement ever has.

Capital & Main: Any last thoughts about John Lewis’ contributions?

Lawson: I think it’s important for labor unions and community organizers to recognize that, in one wave, John Lewis chose Martin King and the bus boycott as his models, and in the second wave, the emerging movement chose John. John became a very valued participant in the post-Nashville campaigns – Albany, Georgia, Birmingham, the voter rights campaign, the voting registration activities all across Alabama and Georgia and Mississippi and elsewhere. The Freedom Rides. And then out of Birmingham he came to the March on Washington and became the youngest representative there.

Copyright 2020 Capital & Main

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