Nonviolent freedom activist Reverend Lawson brings historical perspective to revolutions

Portland State’s Students United for Nonviolence hosted Reverend Dr. James Lawson, associate and friend of Martin Luther King Jr., on April 24 to provide insight on nonviolent practices of protest, as well as his role and experiences in founding the nonviolent Freedom Movement in the 1960s.

The event—titled “Continuing the Revolution: A New Intergenerational American Freedom Movement”—was held from 6–9 p.m. in the University Place hotel. The event detailed Lawson’s history as a pioneer of nonviolent movements across the American South in the ‘50s and ‘60s through Lawson’s own words, and included historical perspective from various members of the James Lawson Institute.  

Lawson stressed throughout the event that nonviolent social revolutions were systematic, not spontaneous, and involved strategic planning and recruitment.

“[The Nashville] campaign was a planned campaign,” Lawson said. “We recruited people…for our workshops and our campaigns, and once we got started, we were able to escalate because people recognized the nonviolent way was the way that allowed people to be human and alive, not despising and hating other people.”

On the sit-in campaign orchestrated by Lawson and others involving students sitting at deli counters in downtown Nashville, Lawson said, “That sit-in campaign was not about getting a hamburger, which many of the public reports in the media focused on.”

“It was a shift from a public codification of public hostility directed toward a part of the citizenry of the nation,” Lawson continued. “It was a strategic shift.”

Members of the Institute also gave a summary of Lawson’s background through a 30-minute excerpt from the documentary A Force More Powerful, detailing the rise of nonviolent protest in Nashville and its subsequent spread across the Amerian South.

The documentary depicted Lawson’s history as a methodist minister from Ohio, hosting evening workshops on methods and stories of nonviolence—using Gandhi’s words as an aid—with students in the basement of the church. Asked by Martin Luther King Jr. to take his efforts further south, Lawson began the steady uphill battle in the late ‘50s of desegregating Nashville through diner sit-ins and boycotts.

Lawson took issue with the documentary oversimplifying the efforts to desegregate downtown Nashville. He explained that existing literature on the national campaign for desegregation from 1959 to 1960 does not adequately define what really happened.

Dr. Mary Elizabeth King, director of the James Lawson Institute, likened the decade of nonviolent protest and organization before the official start of the civil rights movement in the 1960s to the decade before the American Revolution in the 18th century.

“To John Adams, the real revolution was when the colonists withdrew their cooperation with the British crown,” King said, “Even before the Declaration of Independence, they were governing themselves.”  

King continued, stating John Adams wrote that the true revolution was in the minds and hearts of the people, not the history of military operations.

“Some experts view the war as military defense of existing self governance in the colonies,” King said. “Most historians looking at [the decade before the revolution] assumed there was an unstoppable march to war, so they completely overlooked the boycotts, demonstrations, noncooperation, nonimportation, nonexportation and amazing participation of men, women and children.”

The event also focused on the nonviolent use of power in giving and removing consent.

“[Lawson] has, for 60 years…been revealing how the power exercised by the people is exerted by their consent and cooperation,” King said in her introduction.

She said weeks before the first Fourth of July, John Adams wrote the preamble to the Declaration of Independence and said to secure rights, governments are instituted and derive their just powers from the consent of the governed.

“This is who we are,” King said. “We are the ones who give consent to the government, and in nonviolent action, we withdraw that consent.”

On SUN’s involvement with the event, faculty coordinator Tom Hastings said Lawson’s experiences and words were “enormously relevant” to PSU students and faculty.

“Lawson teaches skills that strengthen democracy,” Hastings said. “[Students and faculty] can use these skills for the rest of their lives as members of our democracy.”

Lawson emphasized that they chose downtown Nashville specifically as a target for desegregation efforts.

“Social change is hard work,” Lawson concluded. Nothing about it is spontaneous.”