Remembering Beloved Rev. James M. Lawson, Jr.

When my friend and mentor Rev. James M. Lawson, Jr. passed away on June 9 at age 95, our nation and world lost a prophet of nonviolence and a peerless teacher and role model who was the living embodiment of fierce love and nonviolent direct action organizing for effective social change. He guided Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in the theories and tactics of nonviolence, and as a mentor to the Nashville Student Movement and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) during the Civil Rights Movement, Rev. Lawson recruited and trained thousands of young leaders of all races and ages fighting for racial and economic justice. Throughout his long life of service as a pastor and teacher he exemplified and taught us Christ’s and Gandhi’s nonviolent values and strategies to combat our nation’s legacy of enslavement, White supremacy, Native American genocide, and exclusion of women and non-propertied White men from our political and economic processes. Countless admirers, including me, embraced nonviolence as a way of living and organizing as a result of Rev. Lawson’s teachings, trainings, life, and witness.

Rev. Lawson demonstrated his own commitment to nonviolence as a young student himself: in 1951, the same year he was set to graduate from Baldwin-Wallace College, he was jailed for refusing to register for the Korean War draft. He was already an ordained minister and a student of Gandhi’s philosophy, and after his release 13 months later, he traveled to India as a Methodist missionary where he continued to study the Gandhian nonviolence techniques he would soon use and teach to others back home. In a sermon at Children’s Defense Fund’s 2013 Proctor Institute for Child Advocacy Ministry (now the Hall-Proctor Institute), Rev. Lawson told us about the day he first read about the Montgomery Bus Boycott in an Indian newspaper:

“In 1947 I began to read My Experiment with Truth by Gandhi and began to know I was a…nonviolent practitioner and I began to put that to use in my daily life…I recognized that this nonviolence, this direct confrontation was what Black people in America must do if we were to speed up the process and change…our nation…I did not know how this would happen, but I was convinced it would happen, and I was convinced that one day I would be participating in it…December 6th, 1955, I’m at my desk…and the [Times of India], the morning paper, is delivered. So I go and pick it up and open it up on my desk, and there in the very middle of the newspaper…was ‘Negroes Engage in a Bus Boycott in Montgomery, Alabama’…And as I read the story, I met for the first time the name Martin Luther King, Jr. And so I jumped up and started dancing around my desk and shouting and singing and clapping…I knew we could have a different kind of world, a different kind of nation.”

He would indeed help bring that new nation into being. Dr. King and Rev. Lawson first met in person in 1957, and for the rest of his life, Dr. King relied on the partner he called “the leading theorist and strategist of nonviolence in the world” and “the mind of the movement.” Rev. Lawson’s legendary organizing would continue to extend for decades through nonviolent movements for workers’ rights, including hotel and service industry workers, LGBTQ+ rights, immigrants’ rights, women’s rights, and exposing and countering this nation’s culture of violence, militarism, White supremacy, and “plantation capitalism.” Rev. Lawson also shared his time generously for years as Children’s Defense Fund’s Senior Consultant on Nonviolent Organizing, collaborating with younger organizers across the country, including at CDF Freedom Schools® National Training and CDF’s Proctor Institute. As CDF’s former Director of Public Theology and Nonviolent Organizing, Rev. Janet Wolf, described him: “a freedom fighter for more than 70 years, a militant but nonviolent warrior whose consistent confrontation with narrow minds and stingy hearts teaches us what it means to embody God’s extravagant grace, a creative prophetic persistent and passionate nonviolent strategist who has led the way, stood in the gap, changed systems, altered power arrangements, and nurtured thousands for leadership in nonviolent direct action organizing movements for justice.”

In a recent interview, after a lengthy conversation discussing his life and the hopes he still had for our nation’s future, Rev. Lawson was asked if he would share a prayer – and after a pause, he answered, “Everything I’ve said is a prayer.” At his 95th birthday celebration he affirmed that everything he did in his life was done as a pastor. Throughout his life Rev. Lawson was a singular and unwavering voice calling across generations for a nation and world where every child of God is welcomed, respected, and empowered to realize their God-given potential. He served as God’s unwavering messenger of hope and justice for all of God’s children, and I am so grateful for Jim Lawson’s example, extraordinary intellect, and generosity of spirit. I am privileged to have had him as a mentor, teacher, and friend, and I know that his work and witness will continue to challenge and embolden us as we carry them forward.