Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the Rev. James Lawson were both 29 when they first met in Oberlin, Ohio, in 1957. Like Lawson, whose birthday is in September, King would have been 84 on Tuesday, Jan. 15, had he lived.
In 1947, Lawson had begun studying Mohandas Gandhi and his nonviolent struggles in South Africa and India. "As I pursued that in college, I began to practice it personally in my fight against racism," said Lawson. "I began to dream of the day when Black people would use nonviolent action to fight the beast that is racism. I met King out of that context." In fact, in those early college years, Lawson had joined the Fellowship of Reconciliation (FOR), a pacifist organization. In 1951, he refused the Korean war draft and was sentenced to three years in prison. He served 14 months.
Lawson said even before he met King personally he had met him numerous times over the radio and in newspapers while he worked in Nagpur, India, from 1953 to 1956, teaching and coaching as a Methodist missionary.
"King and the Montgomery bus boycott were part of my vision for the future," he said.
In 1957, King had gone to Oberlin to speak at a convocation, and Lawson was a student Oberlin College, working on a doctorate in theology. That's where they met face to face.
"We liked each other immediately," said Lawson, "and when he recognized that I had just returned from India and was a practitioner of nonviolence, he immediately was more than just interested and urged me to come south as quickly as I could and join the effort." In fact, he remembers King uttering something like, "Come now. Don't wait. We don't have anyone like you in the South." Lawson agreed that he would.
The man who Congressman John Lewis would later call the architect of the nonviolence movement in America said he dropped his studies and left soon after and headed south, but rather than Alabama, he was based in Nashville, Tenn. Lawson said he was noted as a tactician of the movement because of his work across the South, where he was constantly traveling as a major teacher of nonviolence. All this time he was closely associated with King.
"As a consequence, I did my first workshop on nonviolence in January 1958, and then throughout King's lifetime I would do workshops on nonviolence at meetings, staff retreats, board meetings and actual campaigns."
That was more than two years after Rosa Parks had refused to give up her bus seat to a White woman in Montgomery, Ala., on Dec. 1, 1955. King, E.D. Nixon and the Rev. Ralph D. Abernathy had already created the Montgomery Improvement Association to organize ministers and civic leaders.
"Once he [King] got committed to a recognition that the bus boycott was basically a direct action of a nonviolent campaign, he became a symbol of this style of work to fight segregation," said Lawson.
Dr. King and many others who engaged at that period could not predict what our participation would look like. No one could, but the major engine of the waking up of the nation was the fact that in Montgomery upwards of 50,000 people walked [rather than rode buses] for 381 days.