Veteran civil rights leader calls for reform


2:00 P.M. EST Feb. 18, 2010 | DALLAS (UMNS)

The Rev. James Lawson pauses for a moment of prayer while visiting St. Luke “Community” United Methodist Church in Dallas. UMNS photos by Wallace Faggett.
The Rev. James Lawson pauses for a moment of prayer while visiting St. Luke “Community” United Methodist Church in Dallas. UMNS photos by Wallace Faggett. View in Photo Gallery

A United Methodist minister who trained civil rights workers during the turbulent 1960s is calling for a “movement in our nation where no one is treated unfairly.”

The Rev. James M. Lawson, 81, distinguished professor at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tenn., was in Dallas for a series of speeches in area churches commemorating the 50th anniversary of the Greensboro, N.C., lunch counter sit-ins to protest racial discrimination.

The Dallas Peace Center honored Lawson at a Feb. 1 meeting of the Black Academy of Arts and Letters in the Dallas Convention Center.

Much work remains

“We’ve come a long way, but we have a long way to go,” Lawson told students at a Jan 30 meeting at Grace United Methodist Church.

Earlier, Lawson told a gathering at St. Luke “Community” United Methodist Church, “Racism, sexism, violence and greed are all interrelated.

“They are the main problems in this country,” said the pastor emeritus of Holman United Methodist Church, Los Angeles.

“How is it that you want to perfect democracy in Iraq if you have not perfected democracy at home? …There are more ordinary people that have a better idea of democracy and fairness than big business,” he said.

“We must break our swords and turn them into plowshares.”

Expelled from Vanderbilt

The Rev. Zan W. Holmes Jr., pastor emeritus of St. Luke, introduced Lawson as “the architect of the nonviolent civil rights movement.”

The Rev. James Lawson
The Rev. James Lawson View in Photo Gallery

Born to a Methodist minister in Union Town, Pa., Lawson grew up in Massillon, Ohio. He traveled to India in the 1950s to study the nonviolent principles of Gandhi for three years. He returned to the United States and, in 1957, met the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

Lawson served 13 months of a three-year prison sentence for refusing the draft during the Korean War, and he was expelled from Vanderbilt in 1960 because of his work in the civil rights movement in Nashville.

After a national press uproar and threats of mass faculty resignations, a compromise allowed Lawson to complete his graduate studies at Vanderbilt. He opted instead to complete his degree at Boston University.

Years later, King asked Lawson to teach nonviolence to civil rights activists. As an officer of King’s organization, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, Lawson participated in the 1963 March on Washington, and he was in Memphis the day King was assassinated.

In 2006, Vanderbilt asked Lawson to return to the Nashville campus as a distinguished professor.

Return love for hate

“If we say we want to be like Jesus, we don’t need to return hate for hate,” Lawson said. “We must love one another.” He demonstrated that principle by accepting a faculty position with the school that had expelled him.

“During Black History Month, we need to remember that our parents, grandparents and great-grandparents loved their adopted country,” Lawson told the St. Luke congregation. “Even though two-thirds of blacks in this country have experienced racism, we must be agents of change.”

Creesha A. Hardee, 17, a high school senior and president of St. Luke’s United Methodist Youth Fellowship, asked about Lawson’s experiences marching with the SCLC civil rights activists and King.

“When Dr. Lawson got into how (the students) prepared for their nonviolent role, we did a role play and talked about how they felt. We realized that young people today react to racism in a different way,” Hardee said. “The people doing the sit-ins had a dress code and were taught to act a certain way.

“I had never heard about the Students Nonviolent Coordinating Committee,” she said. “They were taught to speak to their haters with love. When people hurt the students, they had to let it happen, just like Jesus.”

The Rev. Tyrone Gordon, senior pastor of St. Luke, reflected on Lawson’s visit. “To have Dr. Jim Lawson to stand in the pulpit of St. Luke was awesome and a tremendous historic experience. Knowing the role he played in the civil rights movement, it was as if we had a piece of history standing in our midst!

“He has been a foot soldier for justice for so long that we were honored to have him with us. He stood at Dr. King’s side and we were able to present him to a whole new generation. It was such a blessing.”

*Stovall is a freelance writer in Dallas.

News media contact: Tim Tanton, Nashville, Tenn. (615) 742-5470 or