AMHERST, Mass. – The Rev. James Lawson, Jr., the man Martin Luther King, Jr. once called “the leading theorist and strategist of nonviolence in the world,” will speak at the University of Massachusetts Amherst on Monday, April 28 at 7 p.m. in the Bernie Dallas Room, Goodell Hall, as part of the Psychology of Peace and Violence Program’s distinguished speaker series on nonviolent action and civil resistance.
The civil rights movement leader’s talk, “Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community?,” is free and open to all. Lawson is currently a visiting faculty member in the Civil Discourse and Social Change Initiative at California State University, Northridge.
He is also expected to speak at several Springfield community events on Sunday, April 27, and may be able to visit the congregation there where his father was a pastor in the 1920s.
Lawson, 83, was born into a family of Methodist ministers in 1928 and was preaching by the time he finished high school. In college, he joined the Fellowship of Reconciliation (FOR), America’s oldest pacifist organization, where he was first exposed to the nonviolent teachings of Gandhi and a fellow black minister, Howard Thurman.
In 1951, Lawson was sentenced to three years in prison for refusing the Korean War draft. Paroled after 13 months, he finished his undergraduate degree and spent the next three years as a campus minister and teacher at Hislop College in Nagpur, India. While there, he read of the Montgomery, Ala., bus boycott and the emerging nonviolent resistance movement in the United States.
Back in the United States, Lawson began studying theology and by 1957, decided he could no longer sit on the sidelines. At Vanderbilt Divinity School, he opened a FOR field office in Nashville and began holding seminars to train volunteers in Gandhian nonviolent direct action. There he trained many future leaders of the civil rights movement and in 1959 and 1960, many Lawson-trained activists launched the sit-ins in downtown Nashville to challenge segregation there.
Lawson, whose 1960s training sessions were portrayed in the 2013 film, “The Butler,” taught growing numbers of black and white students how to organize sit-ins and other actions to force America to confront segregation’s immorality. He went on to help coordinate the Freedom Rides in 1961 and the Meredith March in 1966. While a pastor at the Centenary Methodist Church in Memphis, he played a major role in the sanitation workers strike of 1968.
In 1974, Lawson became pastor of Holman Methodist Church in Los Angeles until he retired in 1999. He continues to train activists in nonviolence and to support a number of causes, including immigrants’ rights in the United States and the rights of Palestinians, opposition to the war in Iraq, and workers’ rights to a living wage.