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James Lawson, Martin Luther King Jr. and non-violence

James Lawson worked closely with Martin Luther King Junior.
James Lawson worked closely with Martin Luther King Junior.
Office of Mark Ridley-Thomas

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As the nation celebrated the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington this week, James Lawson could only smile. Lawson is the longtime preacher at Holman United Methodist Church in the West Adams district who worked alongside Dr. Martin Luther King for many years. In fact, he was one of the key architects of King's non-violent tactics.

Lawson, who is portrayed briefly in The Butler teaching young civil rights activists, trained hundreds of people in non-violent tactics during the 1950's and 60's. He had studied satyagraha, Mahatma Ghandi’s principles of non-violent resistance, while working as a preacher in India.

He first learned of King on the front pages of a local newspaper in Nagpur, India, reporting on the 1955 bus boycott in Montgomery, Alabama. Lawson met his future friend a year later while studying at Oberlin College in Ohio.

“We had an instant sense of companionship and similarity of purpose," he said. "We were both the same age -- he was a Baptist preacher, me a Methodist preacher."

Lawson said King asked for his help.  "As we talked, Martin urged me to come south immediately because of my experience and practice working in non-violence. So I moved in 1958."

The idea of non-violence came to Lawson, 84, in the fourth grade. He describes an encounter with another child while running an errand for his mother in Massillon, Ohio, the small Midwestern town where he grew up.

“He hurled a racial slur at me from the open window of an automobile," Lawson said. "I went over and slapped the child, and ran back home.” 

When he got there, he told his mother what happened.

“She said simply to me, ‘Jimmy what good did that do? Jimmy there must be a better way.’”

Lawson said he knew she was right -- even if he didn’t know what the non-violence movement was at that point. He didn’t find out until he read Ghandi’s autobiography in college. The civil rights movement adopted non-violence for both moral and tactical reasons, he said.

“It was both - that’s what a lot of people have not understood about the movement.” 

He  believes non-violence is an expression of "unconditional love for human life," and that using it against brutal racism would only breed more violence. The preacher places it with racism and sexism.

“It is not normal. It is abnormal. It is an oppressive ideology and system imposed upon us by our history," he said. "Every resident of this society has to engage in the process of purging themselves of the interior poison of not seeing other human beings as neighbors and not seeing other human beings as equal to themselves.”

Lawson still teaches non-violence classes - decades after working closely with King, and helping to organize the March on Washington. But he never made it to the march. Lawson gave up his seat on a bus from Memphis where he was organizing sanitation workers. He watched King’s speech on TV.

“I did not have the notion at that time that the speech would be preserved as an example of great American rhetoric," he said. "I personally don’t think it was his best speech.” 

Lawson prefers the 'Mountaintop' speech on April 3, 1968, when King said God had allowed him to go up to the mountain, and to look over at the Promised Land.

“I may not get there with you, but I want you to know tonight, that we as a people will get to the Promised Land,” King said. “So I’m not worried tonight. I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the coming of the glory of the lord.”

King was assassinated the next day.