by Rev. John Dear
Pax Christi USA Ambassador of Peace
In 1957, Martin Luther King, Jr. described Rev. James Lawson as “the leading theorist and strategist of nonviolence in the world.” For the more than 60 years that followed, Lawson continued to be a key figure that movements turned to for advice. From civil rights campaigns to anti-militarism struggles to labor organizing, Lawson has been the guiding force for active nonviolence and strategic social change. And today, at age 93, he continues to offer a wisdom that’s grounded in the teachings of Jesus and Gandhi.
Born in 1928, Lawson joined the Fellowship of Reconciliation, or FOR, in college, which first exposed him to the nonviolent teachings of Gandhi and Howard Thurman. In 1950, he became a draft resister to the Korean War and was later arrested and spent 14 months in federal prison.
In 1953, he went to India where he spent time with many of Gandhi’s colleagues, including Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru. He returned to the United States in 1956, enrolled in Oberlin School of Theology in Ohio, joined the staff of FOR and met King, who urged him to move to the South. Jim moved to Nashville where he enrolled at Vanderbilt Divinity School.
There he began his legendary nonviolence training seminars that attracted and transformed many young people, including John Lewis, Diane Nash, Bernard Lafayette, James Bevel and Marion Barry. He taught them how to organize sit-ins and nonviolent actions to confront segregation. His workshops led to the Nashville sit-in movement and desegregation campaign. John Lewis called him “the architect of the nonviolent movement in America.”
Jim helped coordinate the Freedom Rides in 1961 and the Meredith March in 1966; helped found the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee; and served as director of nonviolent education for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. While working as a pastor at the Centenary Methodist Church in Memphis, he played a major role in the sanitation workers’ strike of 1968, and invited King to Memphis…