For the Rev. James Lawson, the civil rights activity of the 1960’s was not just a political movement but “a moment in history when God saw fit to call America back from the depths of moral depravity and onto His path of righteousness.”
Jim Lawson was born in Pennsylvania in 1928. Both his father and grandfather were Methodist ministers, and early in his life, he committed his life to Christian ministry.
He attended Baldwin-Wallace College in Ohio where he joined the Fellowship of Reconciliation, America’s oldest pacifist organization. Through the FOR, he was introduced to the nonviolent teaching of Gandhi and a fellow black minister, Howard Thurman. Before he graduated from college, Lawson put into practice the philosophy of pacifism by refusing to be drafted into the US Army during the Korean War. Sentenced to 3 years in prison, he was released after 13 months and was able to complete his B.A .in 1952. He spent the next 3 years as campus minister and teacher at Hislop College in India. While in India, he read about the Montgomery Bus Boycott and learned of the emerging nonviolent resistance movement back in the United States.
Upon his return to the U.S., he enrolled in Oberlin School of Theology. A chance meeting with MLK at Oberlin convinced him that he could not sit on the sidelines of the Civil Rights Movement. At the urging of Dr. King, he enrolled in Vanderbilt University Divinity School in Nashville. He opened a Fellowship of Reconciliation field office and began holding seminars to train volunteers in the tactics of nonviolent direct action. Believing that nonviolence was deeply rooted in the spirituality of Jesus and the prophets of the Old Testament, he taught black and white students how to organize sit-ins. In 1961, he helped to coordinate the Freedom Rides. Among the 1st wave of Freedom Riders, he was arrested in Jackson, Mississippi as he emerged from one of the buses and entered the segregated bus terminal. Lawson trained many of those students who formed SNCC and became leaders of the Movement such as John Lewis and Diane Nash.
As a result of his activism, Lawson was expelled from Vanderbilt. He concluded his theological graduate work at Boston University School of Theology and it was here that he came under the pacifist teachings and influence of the Dean of Marsh Chapel, Howard Thurman. His expulsion became a source of embarrassment for Vanderbilt when many of the faculty of the Divinity School resigned in protest. At its 2006 graduation ceremonies, Vanderbilt formally apologized to Lawson and invited him to join the faculty. As pastor of Centenary United Methodist Church in Memphis, Lawson played a major role in the sanitation workers strike of 1968. He helped influence MLK’s decision to go to Memphis to organize and encourage the striking workers. It was here that King said of Lawson, “He is now the leading theorist and strategist of nonviolence in the world”.
In 1974, Lawson became pastor of the Holman UMC in Los Angeles where he continued to speak out against racism on “Lawson Live”, a weekly call-in radio program. Now in retirement, he continues his social ministry by lecturing around the country on the philosophy and power of nonviolence.