James Lawson: Reflections on Life, Nonviolence, Civil Rights, MLK

James Lawson: Reflections on Life, Nonviolence, Civil Rights, MLK


(James Lawson) Our country is
a country trapped, embedded, addicted to the
mythology of violence. (narrator) At the age of 88,
United Methodist activist and professor James M. Lawson
is still delivering a message he has lived–that
nonviolence is the only way. (James Lawson) I have across the
years seen all sorts of people change as a consequence of my
own witness and the witness of the church and the
witness of the struggle. (narrator) Rev. Lawson
was a key figure in the U.S. civil rights movement. He credits his parents with
sowing the seeds of nonviolence that would shape his
life and ministry. And he’ll never forget
one fateful day in Ohio. (James Lawson) I had my first
racial insult hurled at me as a child. I struck out at that child and
fought the child physically. Mom was in the kitchen working. In telling her the story she,
without turning to me, said, ‘Jimmy, what good did that do?’ And she did a long soliloquy
then about our lives and who we were and the love of God and the
love of Jesus in our home, in our congregation. And her last sentence was,
‘Jimmy, there must be a better way.’ In many ways that’s the
pivotal event of my life. (narrator) Another influence
in Lawson’s young life was gaining leadership and
life experience through the Methodist Youth Fellowship. (James Lawson) This was a
training program in addition to our schools. Youth ministry at its best then
was a ministry that said to young people, ‘You are human
beings, you are people of faith, you should be following Jesus. And you have to do the
work of ministry.’ (narrator) Through M-Y-F,
Lawson met scholars, pastors, and peers on a local and
then national level. He made headlines when he
refused to report for the draft in 1951, then served
14 months in prison for his anti-war stance. After his release, he traveled
to India as a Methodist missionary and studied the
teachings of Mahatma Gandhi. He returned home just as the
Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was in the news. (James Lawson) He does represent
for me a prophet, teacher, pastor, theologian and probably
the most important one in the last 100 years not simply
for the United States, but also for Western history. (narrator) Lawson had read about
King’s success in leading the Montgomery bus boycott. In 1957, the two men of
faith combined forces. (James Lawson) I told him I
expected to come South one day when I finished graduate
degree or degrees. And Martin said to me,
‘come now. And, I quietly, recognizing
the challenge, said, ‘Okay, I’ll come
as fast as I can.’ (narrator) Lawson wanted to lead
a campaign that would build on the momentum of the bus boycott. He set his sights on
desegregating downtown Nashville with sit-ins at lunch counters. (James Lawson) We had people who
don’t believe it’s possible. So one of my first tasks, in my
own mind, was to persuade them that there’s enough
history of the sit-in and of nonviolent practice. The famous quote Diane Nash is,
“I didn’t think nonviolence would work, but nobody else
was trying to do anything about this system.” (narrator) The lunch counter
sit-ins and a boycott of downtown merchants
proved successful. Later, as a pastor at Centenary
Methodist Church in Memphis, Lawson invited his friend
MLK to speak in support of sanitation workers. The next day, King was
killed by an assassin. (James Lawson) Our relationship
and friendship is what brought him to Memphis in 1968
to the sanitation strike. I saw him twice on
April the 4th, the day he was assassinated. What was left unsaid on that
day, perhaps, might have been how much I appreciated his life
and his leadership and to the extent to which I understood
that to be indeed a carrying of the Cross that very few people
recognized or understood. (narrator) Lawson led two
churches in Tennessee and Holman United Methodist in Los Angeles,
California where he now resides. He has taught a number of
college classes about civil discourse and social change too. Whether as a protestor,
professor, or pastor, James Lawson’s life has been a
powerful sermon, the kind his friend Martin King
preached also. ♪ (music) ♪

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