Veena Hampapur: What would it be like to hear about the civil rights movement from someone who was actually there? Someone who was a leader at the time, who worked closely with Martin Luther King Jr. and who was so devoted to nonviolence that he decided to uproot his life and spend time in India to learn from Gandhi’s followers.
Saba Waheed: This is the second part of our two part series on the Reverend James Lawson Jr.
Veena Hampapur: From the UCLA Labor Center, we bring you Re:Work. I’m Veena Hampapur.
Saba Waheed: And I’m Saba Waheed. In part one of the series, Reverend Lawson shared his path into nonviolence. And in part two, we get to hear more about Reverend Lawson’s recollections of what it was like to be involved in the civil rights movements of the 1960s.
Veena Hampapur: We are hearing from Reverend Lawson not about some romanticized, cleaned up version of the civil rights movement, but as a strategic series of organizing campaigns for racial and economic justice.
Archival Martin Luther King Jr.: I feel that we are in the midst of the most critical period in our nation, and the economic problem is probably the most serious problem confronting the negro community and I might say the most serious problem confronting poor people generally. And I don’t want to be narrow about this, talking only about the Black poor in our country, because I must be concerned about Puerto Ricans who are poor, Mexican Americans, American Indians, and Appalachian whites. And we are confronting a major depression in the poor community. And our time has come to bring to bear the power of the direct action, the nonviolent direct action movement, on the basic economic…
Veena Hampapur: I’m sure our listeners all recognize that voice. We grow up here in the US learning about Dr. King’s fight for civil rights, but less often about his commitment to economic justice. Martin Luther King was a very important person in Rev. Lawson’s life and he shares with us how they met.
James Lawson Jr.: I met him on All India Radio. I met him on the pages of the Nagpur Times in ’55. He was on the cover of Time Magazine, the International Edition, so I knew who he was. I shook his hand and had my first prolonged conversation with him on February the 6th, 1957.
He was invited to a small luncheon at Oberlin in a small dining room, and I arrived there first, after his 11 o’clock speech. We got into a conversation, and I have to tell you, I do not know if anybody entered that room in the first 20 or 30 minutes of our conversation, because it was an absorbing encounter. We took to each other immediately. It was almost as though I’d known him for a long time. He became my Moses, that is, he became that voice of truth and power that I would support and encourage every way I could.
I did tell him that when I finished my graduate degrees, I would move South and I will never forget his words. He looked at me straight in the eyes, and he said very, very quietly, “Come now, don’t wait. We need you. We have no one like you in our movement in the South.” I moved as fast as I could, which was in January of ’58, I was in Nashville, that same week, I was in Little Rock, Arkansas and met the Little Rock Nine.
Veena Hampapur: Reverend Lawson moved to Nashville for a job with the Fellowship of Reconciliation and he was brought in for several months to train and support the Little Rock Nine.
Archival reporter: It’s the Central High School, Little Rock Arkansas. Troops, which for nearly 3 weeks lined the sidewalk here in front of the high school under orders to keep the coloured students out, have been replaced now with their orders to comply with the laws, which means let the Negro students in if they come in.
Veena Hampapur: By enrolling in a high school that had previously been all white, the Little Rock Nine was testing Brown v. The Board of Education, the Supreme Court ruling that declared segregation in public schools unconstitutional.
James Lawson Jr.: I went back to Little Rock many weeks in a row that first six months of ’58. The Black high school in Little Rock did not have a physics or chemistry lab. 85 Black students from that high school wanted to go to Central, which was considered one of the top high schools in the country. The federal court and the local school board agreed to only nine.
When I asked the question, what did their parents tell them, they said, “They told us we cannot fight back.” I responded, “This is what they mean, you cannot fight back the way the White mobs are fighting back. You do not organize your lives to fight back, you can harm yourself because people cannot live through what you’re living without establishing strong counter attack.” Nonviolence is fighting back. It’s fighting back with all the human tools rather than simply the limited tool of the fist or the gun, which isn’t fighting back because it doesn’t change much.
A girl by the name of Carlotta Walls told us of an incident that happened to her in school. Her eight o’clock class had some serious taunters all the time, pushing her around. The worst thing was what they called the bomb. A white boy would take a marble and wrap it in plastic or in paper, and throw it at them with full might. It was one of the most hurtful things.
And as she walked into that eight o’clock class that morning, a bomb sped past her and hit the wall and fell to the floor. Her knees were trembling, but she stooped and picked up that bomb, she walked back to the desk where the boy sitting, who threw it, and she as gently as she could, placed the bomb back on his desk. And the boy turned red, didn’t say anything. Next morning, the boy greeted her at the door, “Good morning, Carlotta.” He never again was found by anyone taunting or intimidating or pushing around the Little Rock Nine. His name came off the list that the NAACP kept of the people who were the fierce taunters.
Saba Waheed: So a lot of times when we think about the civil rights movement, there’s this emphasis on many of the male leaders at the time. But Reverend Lawson really takes the time to highlight the role of the women in that period.
James Lawson Jr.: If you study carefully the Montgomery Bus Boycott, it was women who actually pressed the petitions of the Black community against the bus company and who then eventually called for the boycott. And in the Nashville scene, it was Black women again who insisted that it was horrible to have to manage a family for groceries and general shopping in Downtown Nashville in a segregated system. The white-colored signs, the lack of the capacity to stop and allow our children to play on the third floor of Harveys department store.
A black mother, going downtown to buy a pair of shoes for her son, could not fit the shoe in the stores. She had to take the shoe by sight. And then oftentimes when the shoe did not work well for the boy after they got home, returning it to the store became a major hassle. Those same women said boldly, “You preachers don’t know what it is we put up with, because you don’t do the shopping. You have no idea unless we tell you what it’s like to live under that segregated system.”
I want to also speak of it in terms of the sanitation strike. Because the women came to the mass meetings all the time. The women stood with their husbands, shoulder to shoulder. Women have played just a significant role always in every congregation I pastored.
Veena Hampapur: Reverend Lawson was a key strategist in the campaign to desegregate downtown Nashville.
James Lawson Jr.: The nonviolent movement of America was the nuclear engine of the civil rights movement of the 20th century. The nuclear engine. People who were instantly supportive of the Montgomery Bus Boycott, one of the major issues for them was can it happen again? And where would it happen again?
I went to the chair of the Nashville Christian Leadership Council and said, “Kelly, we have to do it in Nashville. We can’t wait for somebody else to do it.” We took it immediately to the National Christian Leadership Council. That executive board was unanimous and said, “Jim Lawson will you be the strategist, the organizer?”
In January ’59 I had worked out a strategy. Number one, I would use a Gandhian nonviolent approach. And I planned from the beginning we would have sit-in, we would have mass meetings, we would have an economic boycott.
January to March, we did a laundry list of all the issues plaguing the Black community in Nashville. April to June, we selected what would be our target. It was the Black women that settled my mind, we were going to desegregate downtown Nashville. I’ll never forget the moment I said to myself, “Good Lord, why did we pick that huge target? No one had selected such a target.”
I recruited John Lewis. We set out that summer of 1959 to recruit young people because they represent idealism. The next step was deep preparation. And so we planned the workshops. The workshop basically tried to review what I had learned in 10 years from the scriptures, from Jesus, from Gandhi, from my own practice of nonviolence, my own time in prison, and that therefore is how the Nashville movement got organized. And it was marvelous. It worked better than I had ever known.
Archival reporter: The targets of the Nashville students were the lunch counters of the city’s two largest department stores and four variety stores. And for the first time, the community was confronted with Negroes in places where they had never been.
Archival interview: It’s just not the thing we’re used to down here. They come in, and they sit down, and we’re not used to them sitting down beside us because I wasn’t raised with them. I never have lived with them, and I’m not going to start now.
James Lawson Jr.: Nashville added the most important strategy of the 20th century movements. That was the strategy to desegregate, get rid of those horrible signs. Open up jobs in the downtown areas of our country, break the back, the prohibition for Black people to work where they were qualified to work.
Through our negotiating committee, the merchants had agreed that on May 10, the first Black people would be served in their restaurants. We prepared couples to go in on the 10th, they pulled down the signs and began the renovation of restrooms, prepared their people to see Black people at the counter.
Archival reporter: During the early weeks of February 1960, the demonstrations that came to be called the sit-in movement exploded across the South. Within a period of two months, the movement had spread to 65 cities, involving every southern state with the exception of Mississippi. The new tactic came as a surprise, creating bewilderment and confusion in the white communities, and even among the Negroes themselves.
James Lawson Jr.: The academics do us great harm when they call it a sit-in campaign instead of a campaign to desegregate. Because what we did in Nashville became the model for what they did in those 200 cities in the southeastern part of the country alone. More than 200 cities abolished their White colored signs, no wet back signs and this is something I did not know at the time, but we prepared a major portion of the leadership for the next decade in the struggle.
Saba Waheed: You know by 1961, we had the first wave of Freedom Riders that basically traveled along the interstate buses and they were met by mob violence.
James Lawson Jr.: The Freedom Ride in its second stage could not have happened if Nashville had not happened. We were the only group in the country that had had the kind of deep preparation on the power of nonviolent struggle, so that when the KKK and the White Citizens Council burned the buses and mobbed the buses in Alabama, it was most of the activists in our campaign in Nashville, who recognized, we could not allow a burning bus to stop the emergence of our movement.
So the Nashville took it up, and more than 400 people that eventually spent time in Parchman Prison in Mississippi. We turned Parchman Prison into a university on nonviolence. And our Nashville people told the story of Nashville campaign.
Veena Hampapur: So what we have here in the U.S. is what Rev. Lawson calls plantation capitalism.
James Lawson Jr.: The sanitation strike in Memphis in 1968 was one of the places where I heard the men calling the public works barn, The Plantation, which has stuck and caused me now to keep teaching about plantation capitalism.
Our United States economy got started with plantation capitalism. Plantation capitalism had no regard for the Indigenous peoples. And then as they started slavery, that solidified the opinion which saw the worker primarily as a piece of property and not as a full human being. That history which we don’t want to acknowledge, is maybe the most serious intellectual and spiritual barrier to having an economic order which is just to all of its working people.
Saba Waheed: We are in the late 1960s now, and Reverend Lawson had become the pastor of a Methodist church in Memphis and he led the strategy committee that assisted the city’s Black sanitation workers.
James Lawson Jr.: That strike came out of the heroic character of ordinary men who were convinced that they were somebody and that they deserved not to be working the long hours they work and not receive the kind of remuneration that allowed them to live lives of dignity.
Working conditions were pretty bad. They had to carry tubs of garbage, and the tubs would often leak. The white supervisors could shower but the sanitation workers were not allowed to shower in the barns nor to bring in clean clothes. They told stories of how they had to go to the back doorstep of their house and their wife would come out and hose them off.
That was typical of plantation capitalism and racism, using Black people for the dirty work and for the dangerous work. In that sense, the sanitation worker came up with the slogan, “I am a man.” Which essentially is saying, “I’m not a piece of property. I am not a thing. I am not a slave. I am not an inferior act of God’s creation. I am a full blooded human being.”
We actually thought the strike was going to be ended in the first month. But, the city council denied it and we were outraged. We organized a march going to the Mason Temple, where we were going to have a meeting. And then in the middle of that, the police lined up and they maced us all. Having been disappointed in what we’d hope was to be the end of the strike and then to be gassed and maced. Of course, what’s infuriating to me is that the reports that came from the media acted as though that we were unruly. We were not.
We said that we will invite some national spokespeople into the strike and that meant we did have much more press. I took on the responsibility of inviting King. That was a major strategy that since the strike is so important for the whole movement and struggle to make certain that its message can get across the country. And so, especially when Martin King came in, even international press was available in that Mason Temple to see that standing room only meeting.
Memphis was a large city and the Church of God and Christ had built this 8,000 seat, which would actually seat 11,000, 12,000 people standing in the room because the aisles were long, wide aisles, up and down. So, King walks into this meeting and he’s never been in such a meeting like that before in the South.
Saba Waheed: Dr. King’s last speech, the mountaintop speech, was delivered the night of April 3rd to a full congregation that included the striking sanitation workers.
James Lawson Jr.: The mass meeting was a wonderful experience that April 3rd night. One of the mid-South storms that began in mid-afternoon and continued on even to the evening so that in the mass meeting where Dr. King spoke on April the 3rd, rain was beating against the roof. The roof covering was a tin.
Archival Martin Luther King Jr.: I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land. So I’m happy tonight. I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.
Veena Hampapur: Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated the next day. Reverend Lawson recalls that time.
James Lawson Jr.: King’s assassination continues to grieve me. April 4th was another day in our struggle that was urgent. City government had taken Martin King and the SLC into court over the march we were organizing. About two hours before I went to court, I was in Dr. King’s room in the Lorraine Motel talking and he urged me in the afternoon to come back and continue to have that conversation with him about the strike. So, it was a day where urgent organizing, meetings, court action were all going on.
Martin King’s assassination at age 39 in Memphis, on April the fourth, around six o’clock, was a major blow to the Nonviolent Movement in America that was already after 10 years of work, having massive effect on the United States. From day one, when I called Martin Luther King Jr., he knew this was the part of our movement for social justice and economic justice. And he recognized that the march for freedom and justice on the part of the Black people of this country, was a march that would have to include benefits to the whole nation. The 1300 African American men on strike operated in such a way that every worker, 87% of whom were white in the city of Memphis government, received the benefits of the wage increase. That’s a part of a parable of the United States. Tremendous numbers of people don’t know where the change has come from.
Veena Hampapur: When Reverend Lawson talks about the politics of assassination in the 1960s, it leads you to wonder, what might the world look like if Martin Luther King Jr. hadn’t been assassinated. What if Malcolm X was still around?
James Lawson Jr.: In the last months of Malcolm X’s life, King and he were talking together about the present moment in the struggle and its future. With the assassination of Martin King, and Malcolm X, John Kennedy, and Robert Kennedy and Medgar Evers, I feel that the politics of assassination, stopped the course of history. And I’ll say it in a very plain way, those 5 assassinations allowed Donald Trump to be elected as president of the United States. Those five men were shaping a different direction for the nation. And that’s why I maintain the assassinations were pretty well-planned by agencies that go into the highest level of government. That highest levels of government represents plantation capitalism, which has as its aim in the United States, the gathering of wealth, power, posture, fame, so that a relatively small segment of the economy can control the people of the United States.
So, the assassination of Martin King was a great loss to us and to the chance for the nation to become a more accessible society for all the people. Whether we’ll fully recover from that, I don’t know. That’s why it’s important that everyone who wants a brighter future for themselves, for their families and neighbors, and for their cities and villages, must adopt nonviolent struggle because nonviolent struggle gives our opponents and enemies the space to change.
Veena Hampapur: We have a tendency to think about the civil rights movement as something that was in the far, you know, distant past, but it’s really not. This happened just a few years before my dad immigrated to the U.S. and it was a major part of the reason he was even allowed to come here, to this country.
Saba Waheed: Yeah, and I think what that really brings up for me is this indebtedness we have to that history. And what’s so special about being able to hear Reverend Lawson who has the most vivid and detailed memory of those moments, is to remember, you know, what that movement did for the community then and then very much what it continues to do for the Black communities, but then also immigrant communities, our communities, LGBT communities. You really see how we owe him, and the leaders, and the workers, and all the community members of that time.
Veena Hampapur: They created a legacy and that’s why when Reverend Lawson talks about what if these really important leaders in the 1960s weren’t assassinated. What would the world look like today? It really kind of like raises the hairs on my arms because it’s such a haunting thought, you know.
Saba Waheed: One thing that came to me when you asked that question, “What would it look like if Dr. King were still alive today?,” when I look at Reverend Lawson, I was like, that’s what it would look like.
James Lawson Jr.: The efforts to stop our march in United States towards equality, liberty, and justice for all cannot succeed, if we create the most disciplined, non-violent, single-minded movement that the nation has ever had.
This is something that we taught all the time in the fifties and sixties. We will take your violence because our discipline will not allow you to succeed.
You have an unlimited capacity for life. You are a life singularity. In you, is all the stuff of life potential that can run you and push you far beyond anything you imagine possible. Be a nonviolent practitioner, do your homework everyday to become a transformed person of love and truth.
Our country must move from racism to sisterhood, must move from guns to justice, from economic cruelty and torture to economic justice and fairness, from producing homelessness to creating humanity in all categories of life.
Soul force, nonviolence, love force, life force, spirit force is the hope of the future. You can be in on the ground floor, becoming the human beings who will help the human race, not simply to survive but to live, in the full imagination of our gift of life.
Veena Hampapur: You are 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.
Saba Waheed: This episode was produced by Veena Hampapur and Saba Waheed. Sound design and editing by Veena Hampapur.
Veena Hampapur: Mixing by Aaron Dalton.
Saba Waheed: Until next time. Rethink, Rework.