An innovator of non-violent resistance
A heartfelt celebration took place late last week at Holman United Methodist Church with the co-naming of a mile-long stretch of Adams Boulevard in South Los Angeles as the Rev. James Lawson Mile.
Lawson was the pastor of the church from 1974 to his retirement in 1999. A march took place on Jan. 11 from the intersection of Adams and Crenshaw boulevards, the western end of the mile, to Arlington Avenue, its eastern end. The march paid homage to Lawson and his teachings of unity, according to Councilwoman Heather Hutt, who introduced the motion to name the stretch of the street for Lawson.
“I am deeply grateful,” Lawson said. “My wife and I are very glad that this is happening, though this surprised us, as we started out 65 years ago, we did not anticipate this–we expected jail, we expected mobs and such, we expected the loss of dear friends and colleagues in the struggle, we expected also, the joys of accomplishment.”
Hutt and Yvonne Wheeler, the president of the Los Angeles County Federation, spoke at the unveiling and were joined by a number of community leaders and civil rights activists.
“Rev. James Lawson was a relentless advocate who, during the Civil Rights Movement, led Freedom Rides, advocated for voting rights, and truly built a legacy that left an indelible mark on social justice movements around the world,” Hutt said in a statement Sept. 21, two days after she introduced the motion to create the Reverend James Lawson Mile which was approved by the council on a 13-0 vote on Jan. 10.
“As someone who pushed for a world of nonviolence and unity amongst all people, we must ensure that his legacy and name is carried on for generations to come. It brings me much joy to pay homage to the immense impact Rev. Lawson has made on our society by naming a portion of Adams Boulevard the Rev. James Lawson Mile.”
Lawson reflected on the state of racial strife in the United States and the shift away from nonviolent resistance.
“I deplore the fact that at this present moment in the United States that we have not heard a word in the public discussion that love, nonviolence have powers that we human beings are only beginning to understand. You cannot counter violence with anger or violence. It can only be encouraged through compassion and nonviolence.”
Born James Morris Lawson Jr. Sept. 22, 1928, in Uniontown, Penn. Lawson is the son and grandson of Methodist ministers, He was reared in Massillon, Ohio.
While a student at Baldwin-Wallace College in Berea, Ohio, Lawson was drafted by the U.S. Army, but refused to serve due to his belief in nonviolence and was sentenced to two years in prison.
Released after 13 months, Lawson returned to college to finish his education, then traveled to Nagpur, India as a Methodist missionary to study the nonviolence resistance tactics developed by Mahatma Gandhi.
Lawson returned to the United States in 1956, entering the Graduate School of Theology at Oberlin College in Ohio. According to a biography from the Stanford University-based Martin Luther King, Jr. Research & Education Institute, one of Lawson’s Oberlin professors introduced him to King, who had also embraced Gandhi’s principles of nonviolent resistance.
In 1957, King urged Lawson to move to the South telling him, “Come now. We don’t have anyone like you down there.” He moved to Nashville, Tenn. where he attended Vanderbilt University.
In February 1960, following lunch counter sit-ins initiated by students at a Woolworth’s store in Greensboro, NC, Lawson and several local activists launched a similar protest in Nashville’s downtown stores. More than 150 students were arrested before city leaders agreed to desegregate some lunch counters.
Lawson was expelled from Vanderbilt in March 1960 because of his involvement with Nashville’s desegregation movement. Lawson eventually reconciled with Vanderbilt and returned to teach as a distinguished university professor. Vanderbilt established an institute for the research and study of nonviolent movements bearing his name in 2021.
Lawson participated in the 1961 Freedom Rides which challenged segregation on interstate buses and bus terminals.
Lawson became pastor of Centenary Methodist Church in Memphis, Tenn. in 1962. In 1968, when Black sanitation workers in Memphis began a strike for higher wages and union recognition after two of their co-workers were accidentally crushed to death, Lawson served as chairman of their strike committee.
Lawson and King led a march in support of the strikers on March 28, 1968, which erupted in violence and was immediately called off.
In what would be his final speech on April 3, 1968, one day before his assassination, King spoke of Lawson as one of the “noble men” who had influenced the Black freedom struggle.
“He’s been going to jail for struggling; he’s been kicked out of Vanderbilt University for this struggling; but he’s still going on, fighting for the rights of his people,” King said.