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Reverend James Lawson - February 25-27, 2008

Reverend James Lawson

During Black History Month 2008, February 25-27, Reverend James Lawson visited Tacoma, WA to engage in scholarly work and dialogue with students, faculty and the religious and labor community.

Rev. Lawson spoke at the following events:

The events were introduced by Professor Michael Honey, Bridges Chair Emeritus.

Rev. Lawson's visit was sponsored by the Harry Bridges Center for Labor Studies and the working group Race, Radicalism and Labor. Other sponsors included Associated Ministries; Black Student Union – UW Tacoma; Fred and Dorothy Haley Professorship – UW Tacoma; A. Philip Randolph Institute – Tacoma Chapter; Tacoma Ministerial Alliance; and the UW Graduate Program – Walker-Ames Scholar.

Activists and scholars of the civil rights movement know Lawson as one of its most influential figures, and he is also one of the most profound labor advocates in the church. Speaking to Lawson is the closest most of us will ever come to speaking with Martin Luther King, Jr., who called him the leading theorist of nonviolence in the United States.

Rev. Lawson, an African-American Methodist minister, was born in Ohio in 1928. The son of a Methodist circuit rider who resisted the Klan with a gun at his side, Lawson instead chose nonviolence as his weapon and became one of its leading advocates. Lawson went to Baldwin Wallace College in Ohio and met pacifist labor and civil rights organizer A.J. Muste, and went to prison for draft refusal during the Korean War, even though he could have avoided the draft with a ministerial deferment. He explored Africa and served as a missionary in India, where he studied Gandhi.

He later attended Oberlin College and met Martin Luther King, who asked him to come south to teach nonviolence as his education director. Lawson did so and helped to originate the Nashville sit-in movement, the freedom rides, and many of the major civil rights struggles in the South, going to jail repeatedly. Vanderbilt University expelled him from its Divinity School for his activism, so Lawson graduated instead with a Master's degree in theology from Boston University, King’s alma mater. Vanderbilt soon regretted its decision and has now appointed him as Distinguished University Professor, and he is teaching courses there on civil rights history.

Lawson led ministers and community groups in the sanitation strike of 1968 in Memphis, where he was pastor at Centenary Church, one of the largest black Methodist churches in the South. Lawson later moved to Los Angeles to pastor Homan Methodist Church and helped to organize Justice for Janitors, a union campaign among low-wage Black and Hispanic workers. One of the most important advocates of church support for activism on behalf of unions and the working poor, a brilliant speaker and deep thinker, Lawson remains one of this country’s most important cross-over leaders, supporting civil rights and labor and human emancipation.

Where Do We Go From Here? Forty Years Since Martin Luther King, Jr.

Shiloh Baptist Church, February 25, 2008

Rev. Lawson worked as King’s educational director and taught nonviolent direct action to start the student sit-in movement, the freedom rides, and campaigns in Birmingham and Chicago and Memphis, where King died in 1968.

In this talk, Rev. Lawson applied Dr. King's principles to the present day, and discussed the prospects of the civil rights movement in a 21st century filled with war and conflict.

Dialogue on Philosophy and Practice of Nonviolence

University of Washington, Tacoma, February 27, 2008

Rev. Lawson put aside his ministerial deferment and went to prison as an conscientious objector to the Korean War in the 1950s. Following the teachings of Jesus, Gandhi, Muste, and King, he has followed a nonviolent path throughout most of his 79 years.

In this talk, Rev. Lawson discussed how nonviolence can be used to put young people and others on a path toward life-long pursuit of justice and personal fulfillment, to end war and create a better world.