The Rev. James Lawson, a longtime nonviolent activist,
practices what he preaches
By Lou Fancher
The use of violence as a means to gain freedom or to protect a citizenship never fulfills its promises to humanity, the Rev. James Lawson said.
"World War I was a call for democracy, but spread the seeds for the second war," he said. "Police killing unarmed people in the streets. Does it decrease crime? Convince people we are a stable society? No. Violence is ineffective. It doesn't provide a stable village: it creates chaos."
Borrowing from the title of a book by Martin Luther King Jr., the longtime nonviolent activist asked, "Where do we go from here: Chaos or community?" as he spoke Saturday at the Barbara Lee and Elihu Harris Lecture Series at the First African Methodist Episcopal Church.
In the 1960s as a Vanderbilt University Divinity School student, Lawson was expelled for his leadership in the Nashville lunch counter sit-ins. The Pennsylvania native took that experience as impetus to join America's oldest pacifist organization -- the Fellowship of Reconciliation -- serve 14 months in prison as a conscientious objector of the Korean War, travel to India as a Methodist missionary to study Mahatma Gandhi's principles of nonviolence, and train and exchange ideas on nonviolent tactics with leaders of the civil rights movement.
The James Lawson Institute studies past and contemporary social justice movements from a strategic perspective and supports ongoing activism in conjunction with the International Center on Nonviolent Conflict through a resource library, educational initiatives and more.
"There isn't a (civil rights) meeting, conference or conversation I have where his name isn't mentioned," said Rep. Barbara Lee, D-Oakland.
Although his contact with King was limited to one introduction, his dedication to nonviolent action often intersected with King's, and their professional histories share similar themes.
Pinpointing the most troubling aspects that are rendering 21st century protests ineffective, Lawson said in an interview that romanticized, mythologized notions that violence is a way to make change and failing to study social movements from a scientific or historic perspective are at fault and lead to mistaken ideas. The shooting of unarmed black men by white police officers, he insisted, is intolerable, but must be resisted through nonviolent action.
"Eighty to 85 percent of police officers do not kill anybody during their careers," Lawson said. "What are they doing? Are they not getting into dangerous situations? We know that's not true. Why haven't mayors and city councils worked on shaping law enforcement from those who've never shot anyone?"
The Rev. James Lawson addresses the audience at the Allen Temple Baptist Church at a commemorative service for Martin Luther King Jr.
Lawson said law enforcement practices need to be tested. Old ideas that grew out of America's past 200 years feed on sexism, racism and an excessive use of force.
The task must be to "form and shape the soil" out of which the most creative nonviolence campaign will help the country to recover its soul and its people to recover their basic human rights, he said.
By examining the civil rights movement -- and campaigns in Poland, Chile, Serbia, Lebanon and more -- Lawson said successful nonviolent conquest strategies emerge.
"The most important element in the '60s was the fact that black college students had to travel through a battery of segregated affairs. They saw the issues for themselves," he said. "Second, they were able to join an intergenerational movement. In in a democratic society, youth do not make decisions; they inherit the decisions already made."
Lawson said protests like the Occupy Movement and activities in Ferguson, Missouri, are "one-shot affairs" compared to protracted campaigns involving sit-ins, marches, boycotts, strikes, petitions, speeches, lobbying, symbolic public acts, mass assemblies and other activities that lead to pragmatic, actual change.
Social media platforms, he said, have not altered nonviolent methodology.
"Human community, whether small like a family or a large unit like a nation, must have its citizens engaged civically," he said. "The technology can be used as a tool, but social media cannot create or execute a campaign such as the solidarity movement of the '80s in Poland or the free South African campaigns of the same time."
Impressed by the rousing introductory speeches given by Yahnah Lighthall and Karen Bustamante, two students from event host Martin King Jr. Freedom Center, Lawson said, "Our issue is not the young. It's the adults who make the decisions that make their lives so difficult."
Calling for people to "wake up" and declaring that sexism is a principle reason "we're not a good country," Lawson exhorted the audience to use the "love power" of Ghandi. Calling for more research to prove the ignobility of violent Western culture structures, Lawson turned to music. In the 8,000 Negro spirituals ("Songs composed by slaves") he has analyzed, he said he found no words of retaliation, hatred or revenge.
"Nonviolence is an old, old spirit," he said. "Practice survival, persistence and endurance by not following the leadership of the evil one. That's power. Find a way to come back and help the person to change his or her mind."