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.
“Contrary to some of the thinking,” said Lawson, “it was not the Supreme Court decision of 1954 that aroused the nation, but the direct-action campaign.”
Lawson said the second major nonviolence direct-action campaign was the student-led sit-in movement against segregated lunch counters, which began in Greenboro, N.C. Lawson calls the description “sit-in movement” as somewhat of a misnomer, because it involved so many other successful components–various forms of protest that allowed the Black community to back it up economically, picket lines, Black churches sending money and calling for change. Lawson said the sit-in campaign affected every state in the union, demanding comparable change in those communities.
In 1960, King invited him to become the director of nonviolent education.
The Freedom Rides were another nonviolent, direct-action campaign, said Lawson. Primarily sponsored by the Congress for Racial Equality (CORE) and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), activists rode interstate buses into the segregated South in 1961 to test Supreme Court decisions outlawing racial segregation in the restaurants and waiting rooms in terminals serving buses that crossed state lines.
The Birmingham campaign of 1963 proved to be another rough patch for King and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. It was a Ku Klux Klan stronghold and Black activists in the state endured repressive forms of violence during voter registration. It was in Birmingham, where Police Chief Bull Connor notoriously set police dogs loose on protesters and where King was put in solitary confinement after defying an injunction not to hold a march.
Was the movement about civil rights?
“Most of us did not have a concept of civil rights,” said Lawson. “Our language was much more about the common things people had to deal with–prejudice, the racism, the mistreatment, the refusal to accept our humanity, better jobs. That was a legal, journalistic term that came out around 1877 from Lincoln era.”
“The February 1968 strike in Memphis [by sanitation workers] chose the motto ‘I am a man.’ That means you need to treat me like a human being. I have a name. These were very humble men. Many sharecroppers out of Arkansas, Mississippi, etc. The Montgomery bus boycott was based on Black women who rode the buses more than anyone else, because they were maids, domestics” who worked in White peoples’ homes and had to get to and fro across the city.
And what kind of man was King, the leader to whom he was so strongly committed?
Lawson, who says he saw King twice on the tragic day of his death in Memphis, Tenn., described him as “easy to know, a fine human being, a husband, a father, a son, a brother. He was a pastor; he had a Ph.D. in theology.
“He was one of the finest human being I have ever met. He loved to tease and he loved to sing and dance. He loved to play basketball, soccer, and swim, and was a fairly good athlete. He had a fine baritone voice. History demands that America deal with the best representation of itself, and King and the movement was that. Some people call in the second American revolution.”