JL: I would insist that every human being has the power of life, the power of the universe in them, and that if they tap that power and learn about it, understand it, live in it, they will see nonviolence as a great force for personal and social change, for overcoming evil, for stopping the economic disparities of our society, for breaking up and dismantling the structures and the ideologies of racism and sexism and violence. It’s one of the great interventions of the 20th century, in my mind, equal to Albert Einstein’s equations on relativity.
SW: From the UCLA Labor Center, we bring you Re:Work. I’m Saba Waheed.
VH: And I’m Veena Hampapur. We’re celebrating over here at the UCLA Labor Center because we received an allocation from the CA state legislature to renovate our building and establish a permanent home for ourselves.
SW: When I thought about working for the Labor Center, it was because of the downstairs space. I could feel the centering of community in that space, the strategies that were built in that space, the workers coming together, the press conferences, the parties!
VH: This was before my time but I heard someone even got married at the Labor Center?
SW: I crashed that wedding.
VH: For those of you who don’t know, the UCLA Labor Center is located next to downtown LA.
SW: We’re walking distance from all our many partners in the labor movement, in the immigrant rights world.
VH: Not only are we establishing a permanent home in MacArthur Park, we’re renaming our building in honor of a famed civil and worker rights leader, Reverend James Lawson Jr. Reverend Lawson worked closely with Dr. King, who called him the greatest teacher of nonviolence in America.
SW: He was a leader in the Civil Rights Movements dating back to the 1960s. He’s been here in Los Angeles since 1974. For the next 47 years, Reverend Lawson will continue to be involved in the labor movement and really seeing the bridges and the need for collaborations amongst all these different movements.
VH: Yeah, and on top of that, for about the last two decades, Reverend Lawson has been teaching a class on nonviolence in social movements at UCLA, sharing his wisdom with our Labor Studies students. And in 2018, he received the UCLA medal, which is the university’s highest honor.
SW: He was also inducted into the California Hall of Fame in 2019. And of course, we have our building. It will be the first structure in the United States to bear his name.
VH: When Reverend Lawson was asked about our building being named after him, he pointed out that he had actually been arrested more times for his work in labor than in all his years of working in the Civil Rights Movement.
SW: That’s so amazing – that’s so awesome.
VH: Who is James Lawson Jr.? We’re going to let Reverend Lawson tell you that himself through sharing excerpts from his course on nonviolence that he teaches with our director, Kent Wong.
SW: And if you’ve never heard him speak, Reverend Lawson is a storyteller at heart.
VH: This episode is Part 1 in our miniseries on Reverend Lawson’s life and teachings.
JL: I’m actually the son of immigrants. My great great grandparents died as slaves somwhere in Virginia. My great grandfather was probably no more than 20 years of age when he decided he was not going to be a slave any longer. And he escaped with his young son, my grandfather, through the Underground Railroad in Philadelphia into Ontario. He builds a successful farm and he could raise on it, his family. And dad apparently decided as a young man to come over to the United States and live and work here. So that’s how somewhere around World War I, he became a pastor in Springfield, Massachusetts. My mother on the other side at age 18 saw an opportunity for her to come to the United States as the nanny for a British family that was moving to Jamestown, New York. She left her family at age 18. And so it’s in Jamestown that my father and mother met, both immigrants.
SW: How young are we when we start to develop a lens for social issues and social justice?
JL: In some mysterious unknowing fashion the notion of wrestling against social evil through the lens of love became something that was at the very core of my life early on. I point to the beginning of this journey at age four, when my father was appointed to the St. James AME Zion Church in Massillon, Ohio. At age four, I’m living on Tremont Street, I joined a sizable group of children who played in the neighborhood, in every way that we children could play. There was a creek two blocks away from the street, and we were often in that creek, waiting and fishing, and in some cases, people trying to swim, though it was not a very deep creek, except that it flooded every spring and every winter. In any case, I was on that street with a white playmate. He hurled at me racist epithets. I turned to my playmate and struck him. That was the beginning of my awareness that I was a Black boy with a very loving family and a wonderful church congregation, and so had a strong sense of my self hood. It’s out of that collision, me versus the world in which I lived, that I discovered nonviolent struggle. At age seven or eight, it was springtime in Massillon. My mother sends me on an errand after school, up the street, where I’m accosted again with a racist epithet. This time again, I went over and struck the boy. When I returned home from that errand, for the first time I can remember, I told my mother about it. I’d never mentioned these racist incidents to either mother or father before then. My mother, without turning to me at all, continued to work at the stove where she was obviously preparing our evening meal. She said quietly to me, “Jimmy, what good did that do?” I’ll never forget that question. “Jimmy, what good did that do?” And she launched into a long soliloquy about who we were and who I was and about Jesus as an example of life and about love and truth. And said, slapping the person did not really affect any change, it only multiplied the problem. And then I’ll never forget as she finished that soliloquy she said, “Jimmy, there must be a better way.” She said, “there must be a better way.” I recognized that in my own life she was saying you have to get into the business of finding that better way. And she was saying to me this should become a part of the thing that you will do as a Black boy in Massillon, Ohio. It’s in that experience then, that I determined that I would never, again fight with my fist. I would never allow anger or fear to cause me to hit another person.
VH: We see that Reverend Lawson developed this moral code at a very young age, but what happens to that as he gets older?
JL: I see those experiences in my childhood as a direct path towards discovering Gandhi. I tried to find every book I could in the college library on Gandhi and read them in 47, 48, 49. And that’s when I came to see nonviolence – which I prefer to call very many times, soul force, life force, love force. I would define nonviolence as the practice of the energy of love, even in times of conflict and disagreement, even in the midst of violence and turmoil and fear that comes from violence. Nonviolence offers us the power and the tactics by which we can overcome the violence, the militarization of our world, therefore the injustice of the world. It is a science. Gandhi said you have to be a person of faith to do nonviolence and all the world’s great religions insist that compassion and truth and wonder, and beauty are a part of the road you take to overcome wrong. You cannot overcome wrong with wrong. You cannot change evil, doing evil. The world’s finest, poetic, philosophical writings all have in them, the sensibility that you have to use justice to overcome injustice.
VH: Reverend Lawson found himself willing to stick to his nonviolent principles, even when he received his draft notice for the Korean War. This meant potentially putting his future at stake.
JL: Well, I want to correct some of the records in history because it was not the beginning of the Korean War that moved my journey. It was my decision by the time I hit high school that I would obey no racist law, that such laws in society were illegal, immoral. By the time I was a sophomore in college, I recognized that the Selective Service Act was an unjust act equal to Jim Crow laws, and I sent my draft cards back to the local board saying that I could not cooperate. In the fall of 1950, I received my first notice from an FBI member. He urged me to come home from college, and I found out then that he wanted to be able to serve the arrest warrant on me for violating the Selective Service. He took me to Canton, Ohio into the offices where I was fingerprinted and all the rest of it and processed. I had a trial then in ’51. I received a three years sentence of which I spent about thirteen months. That prison term represented my saying no to laws which are not just or fair or humanistic. The prison term began somewhere in April of 1951, and it was a federal prison term. I was incarcerated in two federal prisons in West Virginia and in Ashland City, Kentucky. So that was my first time being in jail and in prison, for doing what was right according to my life, and also, I should say very clearly, according to the God I knew and called me. It’s important to know that from my high school and college days, I’ve often been told that, “You’re wrong, that you cannot create a better life through nonviolent struggle, through love and truth.” And many of my colleagues in college thought that I was rather stupid. I was a good student. I was considered a campus leader, when I was abruptly, in my last quarter, snapped up by the federal system and sent off to jail for having committed the felony of non-cooperation with the Selective Service Act. So I was often told I was wrong, that I was on the wrong path. After I’d spent about 13 months in federal prison, I went back then and finished my first degree at Baldwin Wallace college then near the airport in Cleveland, Ohio. I became aware that we had to have a movement in the United States by 1952.
SW: So now, Reverend Lawson has finished his education and he has to figure out what to do next.
JL: I recognized that in the United States, there was a certain level of religious freedom, which I could practice, following Jesus, and I want to insist that this is Jesus as an extraordinary human being, similar to a Gandhi or an Eleanor Roosevelt, who are extraordinary people. But I had a growing sense that I needed to have the experience of living in different culture. While in prison, I was contacted by my church saying, “We have a college” and the college was Hislop College. They wanted someone who would come to be a Physical Ed teacher, a campus minister, and a coach. And that was in Nagpur, India, in the central geographical center of India, where all the planes and trains and buses crossed. So I was able to take that job. It was a three-year contract. I added then to the contract, the fact that being in India, I could follow the path of Gandhi. I could meet some of the people who work with Gandhi, which I did. I could meet some of the people who were engaged in that great independence movement that started the decolonization of the British Empire, which did so through a spirit of soul force – using the tactics of nonviolent struggle, which was Gandhi’s purpose. Three years in a row, I was able to carry a basketball team that I coached at the YMCA in Nagpur to New Delhi, the Calcutta, to Madras, to Bangalore, a gorgeous city back in ’50s, and still is. Every year, I got acquainted with various sections of India as well. One of the important lessons for me, more than anything else, in Hinduism and Islam, there is the spirituality of compassion that is supposed to be God embracing all humankind. I discovered in India, people like myself, different languages, different cultures and different understandings, but nevertheless, human beings, and that of course is what we in the United States have to learn. All of us here on the human journey. We’re the largest, most colorful nation on earth in that we have the ancestry of the human race that comes from the four corners of the earth. You never hear that, but that’s one of the great things about this nation.
VH: Can I just say, I wish that there was a whole miniseries on Reverend Lawson’s time in India. I would totally watch every episode, it is so interesting to me. Anyways, what is next in Reverend Lawson’s journey? Reverend Lawson sees something in the news that sets the course of his future.
JL: I was a United Methodist church missionary in Nagpur, India. I learned of the bus boycott there in early December of 1955. I was in my apartment. I picked up the morning newspaper on the side porch and it was on the front page of the Nagpur times which I read at my desk. And my first reaction actually was to start a minor celebration. So I jumped up on my feet and more or less danced around my desk, two or three times, not doing a whooping, but yelling and shouting for joy. My next apartment neighbor was a biologist at Hislop college by the name of Chris Theofelas and we’d become friends. And Chris was a young man like myself. So Chris came running out of his front door to find out what was going on with me next door. And I had a hard time telling Chris what it was about. Eventually I got out the fact to him that this Montgomery bus boycott had taken place, and that this is something that I had been expecting all along, that I did not know what it was going to be or where it was going to be except that I knew it was going to happen. Because I said to him, I’d been preparing myself to do non-violent struggle – to learn it, to teach it, to practice it. And that I know now that when I go back, I will be in the midst of that struggle.
SW: Let’s pause here and take a moment to remember what it was like to be in the U.S. at this time of segregation.
JL: Many places in the south had these horrible signs that people lived with: “white only” restrooms, water fountains that were marked “colored only.” The hostility of you going into that drugstore was present, and you could be accosted for no reason other than the fact that you were Black. Sometimes without the signs, a Black traveler did not know when and where he might face a very threatening and hostile moment without warning. I had incidents where I was where I was supposed to be but faced refusal. It happened to me in Detroit, in my hometown of Massillon, Peoria, Illinois. I don’t know how many other places. It was an immoral period of time in the United States because the governments said almost nothing against such immoral signs compounded by the fact that so many officials in the United state took great pride in calling the United States a democracy because of our historical documents, which we did not try to program in the daily life of the nation. I don’t remember ever having seen in the forties or fifties or sixties, a single crusade against those signs.
VH: At this point, he knows there is going to be a nonviolent movement in America and he’s excited. He knows he’s going to be a part of this.
Martin Luther King Jr.: Negro citizens of Montgomery have been involved in a nonviolent protest against the injustices which we have experienced on [inaudible] for a number of years. We feel that we are right. We have a legitimate right for legitimate protest. And we feel also that one of the great glories of American democracy is that we have the right to protest our rights. We will do it in an orderly fashion. This is a nonviolent protest. We are depending on moral and spiritual forces, using the method of passive resistance.
VH: The Montgomery Bus Boycott started in 1955 after Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat, and it was the first major nonviolent campaign in that time period.
JL: In Montgomery, Black women who had to ride the buses whose major work in the Montgomery area, was working in the homes of white people as caregivers to children, as cooks, as maids in the household. They were mistreated by the white bus drivers who would cuss at them. And any number of women had the experience of the bus driver taking the money in the front of the bus, and then as they are walking back to the back of the bus, leaving them in the street. Many women were fed up with the mistreatment and with the segregation. Among them was a smaller group of people, some of them were the wives of doctors and Black business people, and they would never ride the buses. But they helped to organize a women’s political committee in Montgomery. As early as five years before 1955, they were writing letters to the mayor of Montgomery and to the bus company protesting that treatment. They even carried a delegation of women to meet with the bus company head and the mayor. When later, Rosa Parks was arrested on December 1st, 1955, people said she was coming home from work and she was tired. She said, “I was not tired from coming into work. I was tired of how they treated us.” And then they were able by their sheer courage and organization skills, mobilizing skills, to have a united Black community that stayed off the buses. 381 days, December 1st, 1955 to about January 17th, when the order came down from the Supreme Court, that said segregation in the buses in Montgomery was unconstitutional. The Montgomery bus boycott showed us a clear political social pattern that we could use for desegregating the nation and especially the Southeastern part of the nation.
SW: The Black church played a central role in the Civil Rights Movement, both logistically and symbolically.
JL: Black pastors pastored congregations of Black people, became their preacher, teacher, example, became their organizer, became the person who helped them see issues. And one of the universal things about it is that almost invariably in those Black churches, segregation was not seen as a friend to black people but as a handicap. It helped the community to recognize that their Black clergy could be leaders in a massive struggle to desegregate Montgomery buses. Also, they became a major group of force raising money. In their Sunday morning services, they prayed for the bus boycott, and they took up an offering for the Montgomery bus boycott. They raised enough money to keep it alive and to keep it moving through 381 days. It allowed Martin King to provide leadership from day one.
Martin Luther King Jr.: And you know, when we planned the bus boycott we said, “If we could just get about 50 or 60 percent of the Negroes of Montgomery not to ride buses, this would be an effective boycott.” I think that whole day we found eight Negroes on the buses. And from that day on, that boycott was more than 99.9 percent effective.
JL: King said, “We’re going to do this out of Christian love. We’re not going to go downtown and drag white people out of their homes and beat up on them. We’re not going to follow the Ku Klux Klan behavior. We’re going to do it a different way.”
VH: When I think back on how we were taught about the Civil Rights Movement in school, often the emphasis is on key famous figures and we’re not taught as much about how this was all strategic. To me, I really appreciate Reverend Lawson making that very clear to us, that with the Montgomery Bus Boycott, they saw that nonviolent mass protest could work to challenge racial segregation and it could help them stratgeize further campaigns.
SW: In Part 2, we’ll journey with Reverend Lawson as he comes back to the U.S. and begins his civil rights journey and further building up the movement for nonviolence.
VH: You’re listening to Re:Work, a project of the UCLA Labor Center. Thanks to Reverend Lawson, Kent Wong, and the Labor Studies program at UCLA. To watch Reverend Lawson’s Nonviolence and Social Movements course, visit bit.ly/UCLALawson.
SW: This episode was produced by Veena Hampapur and Saba Waheed. Sound design and editing by Veena Hampapur.
VH: Mixing by Aaron Dalton.
SW: Until next time, rethink, rework.