James Lawson

Thirty-two-year-old Rev. James Lawson introduced the principles of Gandhian nonviolence to many future leaders of the 1960s civil rights movement. Born in western Pennsylvania and raised in Ohio, he spent a year in prison as a conscientious objector during the Korean War, as well as three years as a Methodist missionary in India, where he was deeply influenced by the philosophy and techniques of nonviolent resistance developed by Mohandas Gandhi and his followers.

While enrolled as a divinity student at Oberlin College, James met the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., who urged James to postpone his studies and take an active role in the civil rights movement. "We don't have anyone like you," Dr. King told him.

Following Dr. King's advice, James headed south as a field secretary for the Fellowship of Reconciliation. In Nashville, Tennessee, he helped organize the Nashville Student Movement's successful sit-in campaign of 1960 and was expelled from Vanderbilt University School of Divinity as a result. He trained Diane Nash, Bernard Lafayette, John Lewis and many others through his famous workshops on the tactics of nonviolent direct action.

When the original CORE Freedom Ride stalled in Birmingham, Alabama, James urged the Nashville Student Movement to continue the Freedom Rides. He conducted workshops on nonviolent resistance while the Freedom Riders spent several days holed up in the Montgomery, Alabama, home of Dr. Richard Harris. During an impromptu press conference on the National Guard-escorted bus that traveled from Montgomery to Jackson, Mississippi, he told reporters that the Freedom Riders "would rather risk violence and be able to travel like ordinary passengers" than rely on armed guards who did not understand their philosophy of combating "violence and hate" by "absorbing it without returning it in kind."

In 1968, James chaired the strike committee for sanitation workers in Memphis, Tennessee. At James' request, Dr. King spoke to the striking workers on the day before his assassination. In 1974, James moved to Los Angeles to lead Holman United Methodist Church where he served as pastor for 25 years before retiring in 1999. Throughout his career and into retirement, he has remained active in various human rights advocacy campaigns, including immigrant rights and opposition to war and militarism. In recent years, he has been a distinguished visiting professor at Vanderbilt University.

More from the show
Retrace the Freedom Riders' journey
Explore America's civil rights issues
Freedom Riders: Then and now 


Next Story