Rev. James Lawson (1928 – ), former pastor of Holman United Methodist Church in Los Angeles, is a longtime peace and justice activist. One of the freedom movement’s earliest teachers of non-violence, Lawson was a conscientious objector during the Korean War. An organizer in the south for the Fellowship of Reconciliation and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, Lawson was an early mentor to Martin Luther King, Jr. and in 1968 invited King to Memphis, Tennessee to march with the garbage workers — during which time King was killed. Lawson currently continues his religiously-grounded activism for human rights and democratic social change from his base in California.


In the fall of 1956, when James Lawson was a graduate student in the Department of Religion at Oberlin College in Ohio, Martin Luther King, Jr. came to speak at the school. Lawson, just a year older than the twenty-seven year old King, had heard about Montgomery while he was a church worker in India and he immediately recognized the Gandhian liberation potentials of the bus boycott and its leader. Thus, when the two religious leaders met it did not take long for King to realize that Lawson, already steeped in the lore of nonviolent resistance to injustice, could be a magnificent gift to the Movement — as well as a teacher for him.

There was an immediate connection at work. When King heard of Lawson’s extraordinary commitment to the search for an alternative to the path of violence in the struggle for freedom; when he realized that Lawson had already served more than a year in federal prison for his Jesus-shaped determination to love his North Korean enemies rather than serve in the military to destroy them; when he realized that Lawson had spent three years in India absorbing the teachings of the Mahatma, King knew that he had met his soul brother. During their first meeting, Lawson told King that he planned eventually to come south and join the rising freedom movement. King immediately replied, “Don’t wait! Come now… We don’t have anyone like you down there.” Then the young Montgomery leader added, “Come as quickly as you can. We really need you.” Jim Lawson needed very little convincing. He had already made an internal commitment to join the southern struggle. So, during the winter of 1958 the seeker for “a better way” entered the eye of the nonviolent southern storm. Lawson’s work in the South was initially supported by a pathbreaking religious pacifist organization, the Fellowship of Reconciliation. Based in Nashville, Tennessee, Lawson shared his understanding of the way of nonviolent resistance with King and his comrades in the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. A brilliant organizer, Lawson eventually gathered and inspired an extraordinary contingent of local student activists who began to train themselves for confrontation with segregation. Yet, even as they prepared, four young black men in Greensboro, North Carolina, entered a segregated Woolworth’s store and asked to be served at the lunch counter — sparking the sit-in movement across the South. Lawson and his student group opened their own campaign shortly afterward, beginning with sit-ins at the segregated public facilities in downtown Nashville. By the time a southwide coalition of the student sit-in leaders gathered in Raleigh, N.C. in April, 1960 to form the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC or “Snick”) Lawson and his younger comrades from Nashville were at the heart of the creative, courageous student movement which would do so much to transform the south, challenge the nation and inspire the world.

Martin Luther King called his friend and brother “the greatest teacher of nonviolence in America.” And, in 1961, when we met Jim, it was quickly apparent to us that King’s statement was not in the least hyperbolic. It was true, and in a sense Jim Lawson was simply continuing the path he had begun in the home of the Reverend James Morris Lawson, Sr. and Mrs. Philane Cover Lawson in Massillon, Ohio. His father, a highly respected AME pastor had taught Jim by word and example the absolute necessity of resistance to injustice wherever he met it. At the same time, Jim’s mother gently and consistently urged him to allow the life of Jesus to shape that bold resistance, always seeking “a better way” than the dehumanizing path of violence. For Jim and his siblings growing up in the 1930s and 40s, both parents modeled integrity, service and solidarity with the poor. And when Jim married Dorothy Wood in 1959 he found a sister-in-the-path who resolutely accompanied him in the search for “the better way.”

When we met Jim in 1961 in a small town in Mississippi, he was conducting workshops in nonviolence and citizenship education for small groups of black teenagers and adults who lived in the area. We went with him to a local church where the meetings were held and, on the spur of the moment, Jim asked Rosemarie to teach one of the classes while he was occupied with another task. Despite the unexpectedness of the request, Rosemarie entered into a dialogue with the students and by the end of the class time, we both recognized one of the most important elements of Jim Lawson’s organizational genius and leadership style. As a leader, he places people in positions to use whatever talents and skills they have, and to develop these even further. The men, women and teens who were participants in Lawson’s workshops were preparing themselves to go to the courthouse and attempt to register to vote. In the early 1960s, this was an extraordinarily courageous thing for black people to do. And Lawson’s students, having lived in the area all their lives, were well aware of the danger. But they were also aware of their own abilities, their great spiritual resources and were well-prepared to confront the segregationist powers aligned against them. We were deeply impressed at the way that Lawson created situations where everyone — Rosemarie and all the students — was encouraged to live up to their own best possibilities. That indeed is the mark of a master teacher and a master organizer.

Later in the 1960s, Lawson was serving as a Methodist pastor in Memphis, Tennessee. There he became a firm ally of the mostly black, under-paid garbage workers of the city who were organizing for living wages and for working conditions that would respect their human dignity. Nor was it remarkable that in the late winter of 1968 Lawson asked his friend, Martin, to come and lead a demonstration with and for the striking workers. At the time, King and SCLC were practically overwhelmed by the logistical, spiritual and strategic challenges of organizing a Poor People’s Campaign which would marshal the forces of thousands of poor people from every background to gather in Washington, D.C. that spring. There they planned to carry out nonviolent civil disobedience to demand that the federal government turn from its unjust war against the Vietnamese people to mount an authentic version of what President Lyndon Johnson had called “a war on poverty.” In spite of reservations within the SCLC leadership group, both Lawson and King considered the opportunity to stand with the garbagemen as a natural first step in the Poor People’s campaign. So, King was in Memphis on behalf of the garbage workers when the long-travelling bullet finally met him and ended his life.

It had been almost exactly a decade since Lawson had responded to King’s invitation (and his own sense of calling) to come to participate in the southern movement. All through a long, very hard and mostly private period of deep grieving for King, Lawson continued his work for justice, the expansion of democracy and compassionate pastoral ministry from his base in Memphis. Finally, in 1974 he responded to the encouragement of friends, family and bishops and accepted the invitation to move out of the south to become pastor of Holman United Methodist Church in Los Angeles, one of the nation’s largest predominantly black United Methodist churches.

Each time we visited Holman, we saw the unmistakable signs of a ministry that continued faithful to reconciliation, to compassion, to integrity, and to the legacy of Jim Lawson’s parents. In the spring of 1999, Jim Lawson retired from fifty years of formal pastoral ministry, leaving the pulpit of Holman after 25 years of service there. At the time, Vincent asked him how he planned to spend his retirement years. Jim said, “This will give me more time to pray, to read, to write and to go on silent retreats.” What he didn’t say was that it would also give him more time to stand and march in solidarity with poor people who were struggling for basic human dignity and economic justice, “the least of these.” But we were not surprised when we called the house one day and Dorothy told us that Jim had been arrested. He was in jail with the Los Angeles janitors who were organizing for the right to join a union that would help them gain a salary above the poverty level and for working conditions that respected their humanity. When we heard of Jim’s retirement activities we could clearly see his impish smile and hear him say about his latest jailing, “Well, I did get that time to pray.”

Vincent Harding and Rosemarie Freeney Harding
Founders and Co-Chairpersons, The Veterans of Hope Project
Spring 2000

Growing Up as A Preacher’s Kid

It’s difficult and yet at the same time relatively simple to talk about my background and the role of religion. Because in a very real way my growing up days in an A.M.E. Zion [African Methodist Episcopal Zion] pastor’s parsonage with a large family where the church was the center for me, therefore, religion became almost as a part of eating, sleeping, running, getting into trouble. It became for me just a normal part of life. It became part of what life was about.

When my father went out to preach in other places, he often–I was the oldest boy–so often he took me. The pastors would not let me sit in the congregation. They insisted that I sit up in the pulpit with them. Those scenes have made an impact on my thought. I didn’t understand it then as much as I did much later but that’s important. In those days in the late twenties, early thirties, the black church was a center of community activity and focus. If there was any social passion for working against prejudice and the like, the church was invariably the center of it. So a personal message and a social message were not, in my life, in my early days, seen as separate compartments, but as a single piece of garment. A single stream of life.

When I reached five and started school, first grade, I met the youngsters who felt that the preacher’s kid in town had to be tested. The only way to test him was to see if he was tough, if he would fight. And I tended to resist that. My mother supported me in that. My father, however, on the other side said, “No, they are going to mess with you so fight them.” I shall never forget in the first grade coming home, being trailed by a group of boys still who wanted to fight, one of them especially, because they thought he was the tough fighter in the group. When I got to the porch my dad was sitting on the porch reading. When he saw this crowd he said, “What’s going on?” I said, “Well, they want me to fight.” I don’t even remember the name of the kid anymore, and I said “I’m not going to fight him.” He said, “No, go on down and fight him.” So I spent the lunch hour out in front of the house on the sidewalk, in the dirt ground, fighting this kid. So Dad’s attitude was resistance and he said that in Sharon [South Carolina] he carried a pistol all of the time because he was not going to be mistreated as a man. He was going to be treated as a man and if that meant he had to kill for it, or he had to die for it, he was going to do it.

My mother’s perspective was that that was not the way to do it. And when sometimes my four brothers and I got into it and arguing intensely, my Dad’s attitude was: Okay if you fight, fight it out and forget about it. My mother’s attitude was: No, Jacob–which she always called him–that isn’t the way to do it. I don’t want our sons fighting.

The Draft, Prison and India

1947 for me was another awakening year. I started Baldwin-Wallace College that Fall. Within about six weeks after I started classes the history department sponsored lectures by A.J. Muste who at that time was the executive director of the Fellowship of Reconciliation of which I am now chairperson. It is the oldest group in the United States that has had a long history of commitment to love as the way to bring about change. “Love is the law of life” is the way it read back then in ’47 and it must be applied in all areas, all arenas of human life–in one’s personal life; in the raising of children; in the family life; in labor-relations; in economic life; in political life; against war, so forth and so on, so it was a comprehensive thing and that was for me a great, great boost and support. I recognized in A.J. Muste, then, that I was not alone in my experiment with love and nonviolence and that there was a history that I did not know about and that there were lots of people that I did not know about.

By the time I had to sign-up for the draft, which was 1948–I had to register for the draft in 1948, as I recall–I wrote on the one-page draft [form], “I don’t know if I’m doing what I should be doing. I have real problems from the point of view of Jesus”–or something like this. I wish I had a copy of it now, but I don’t. But [I wrote] “I’m going ahead and registering, but I may not be able to go through with it. I’m registering now, but I don’t know where this is going to take me down the road.” So that was a part of the process then. By 1948-49 I had clearly determined that, in my own mind’s eye, there were certain laws that the Christian had to disobey: the laws of segregation and the laws of the conscription. So then I sent my draft cards back and said I could no longer cooperate with it.

Nashville Student Movement

December 6, 1955, I was in my living quarters that was an apartment on the side of a large bungalow in India and the Nagpur Times had been delivered for that day–a newspaper in English–and on the front page of that paper was the story that Negroes in Montgomery, Alabama were boycotting the bus. It was the front page story in the center of the paper and I read it with great glee and did some jumping up and dancing and shouting about it because it represented what I had hoped to see happen in America and for the first time I saw the name, Martin Luther King, Jr. I made so much racket in my apartment that the next door neighbor in the center apartment of the bungalow came rushing over, Chris Theopholus, who was a biologist at the college, came running out to see if something was wrong. I showed him the article and told him that this is what I had been practicing personally and that this is what I hoped to see happen in America.

Harding: So what did you think you, specifically, Jim Lawson, was coming back to the U.S.A. for at that point?
Lawson: Well, I wanted to finish my theological education but I also wanted to work in the south. Those were my two aims and two goals. I did not have an understanding, of what the latter represented, except that I would move my body to the South and begin work there. I was open to how that would happen. That, of course, was further strengthened when I met Martin King for the first time, February 6th, 1957, at Oberlin College.
Harding: Nashville became, then, your base for a good while and you get there just before what we see from the outside as the rising up of the student movement in the South.
Lawson: I was there in early ’58. I think I landed in Nashville in January of ’58.
Harding: What did you start to do there? What, actually were you trying to work on there?
Lawson: Because I came into Nashville as the southern secretary of FOR, the FOR itself had some plans for me in my first months. Travelling, making a tour of the south and visiting many of the hotspots, doing workshops on nonviolence began immediately. One of the earliest workshops was one with Martin King and Ralph Abernathy in Columbia, South Carolina. That was in early February, as I remember, of ’58, as an example. They were meeting in February as the Southern Christian Leadership Conference which was newly organized to carry the idea of the Montgomery boycott further.
Harding: When did you start organizing these workshops in Nashville?
Lawson: Glenn Smiley and I did a workshop sometime in the early Spring of 1958 for the Nashville Christian Leadership Council. We did a series of workshops on nonviolence, itself, in Nashville that spring. Kelly [Miller Smith] invited me to become the chairperson of nonviolent action for the Nashville Christian Leadership Council. I agreed to do that and made it a part of my work for FOR because I talked with my immediate boss, Glenn Smiley, about it and suggested to him that one of the best ways for us to teach nonviolence and make an impact was for me to do some extensive work in Nashville to see if we could develop a movement.


Clayborne Carson, et al. A Reader and Guide: Eyes on the Prize: America’s Civil Rights Years. (2nd ed.) Penguin Books, 1991.  Historians Clayborne Carson, David Garrow, Vincent Harding, and Darlene Hine are the editors of this companion guide to the PBS series Eyes on the Prize. Each of the fourteen chapters opens with an introduction which provides historical context for a particular phase of the struggle. The primary documents included here are of inestimable value to students and teachers alike.

Mohandas K. Gandhi. An Autobiography: The Story of My Experiments with Truth, with a foreword by Sissela Bok. Boston: Beacon Press, 1993.  Gandhi’s life and work influenced movements of nonviolent social change in many parts of the world. Religiously oriented nonviolent activists such as James Lawson often found and still find the autobiography a valuable resource. It is an easy work to read and it makes Gandhi accessible.

David Halberstam. The Children, Fawcett Books, 1999.  This important, though long work, tells the story of the critical role the Nashville sit-in movement played in the early years of the modern African American Freedom Movement. Halberstam provides us with the most complete account yet of the life and work of James Lawson—his early upbringing, his pilgrimage to nonviolence, the nonviolence training workshops he organized, and the direction he gave to the Southern-based struggle for freedom and justice.

Henry Hampton and Steve Fayer, Voices of Freedom: An Oral History of the Civil Rights Movement from the 1950s through the 1980s. Bantam Books, 1991.   Hampton and Fayer relate the story of the modern African American freedom struggle through the voices of those who helped to make that history. Reflections of scores of major frontline activists from the Northern, urban-based movement, as well as the Southern nonviolent movement are gathered here.

Vincent Harding. Hope and History: Why We Must Share the History of the Movement. Orbis Books, 1990.   This book explores the meaning and the message of the Southern Freedom Movement of the 1950s and 1960s. Harding is convinced that the modern African American struggle teaches us important lessons for the creation of a more just and democratic nation. Hope and History is a powerful tool for concerned and compassionate educators.

Staughton and Alice Lynd, eds. Nonviolence in America: A Documentary History, Orbis Books, 1995.  At a time when violence pervades so much of our national and individual lives, it is refreshing to learn that the United States has a long and viable tradition of nonviolent activism. Through a compilation of primary documents, the Lynds bring the history of nonviolence in this country alive in powerful ways.

Aldon D. Morris, The Origins of the Civil Rights Movement: Black Communities Organizing for Change, Free Press, 1986.  From the outset, the black church has nurtured and sustained African American struggle against injustice and inequality. Groups such as the NAACP, Urban League, the Fellowship of Reconciliation, and the Highlander Folk School have also played a significant role in confronting racism and white supremacy. Morris tells how these and other institutions prepared the ground for the modern African American Freedom Movement.

Joanne Robinson, Abraham Went Out: A Biography of A. J. Muste, Temple University Press, 1981.  Since its founding in 1915, the Fellowship of Reconciliation (FOR) has inspired, trained, and supported a diverse group of people in the way of nonviolent living. In the first half of the twentieth century, Muste was its major spokesperson and guide, and he touched many lives, including that of James Lawson. This biography is very helpful for anyone interested in learning about the 20th century struggle for peace, justice, and reconciliation in this country in general and about Muste in particular.

Juan Williams. Eyes on the Prize: America’s Civil Rights Years, 1954-65, Penguin Books, 1988.  This companion volume to part one of the Eyes on the Prize PBS television series captures the spirit, the energy, and the dynamism of the first ten years of the Southern nonviolent movement. The narrative is highly readable, incisive, and informative. Photographs and participant interviews make the history of the time easily accessible.


Video and DVD

Eyes on the Prize: America’s Civil Rights Years, Blackside, Inc, 1986 (Available from PBS Home Video — online at link)

Web Links

Rev. Lawson is featured in volume three of the video series Potentials: Envisioning the New Millennium. In this episode, he explores the interconnectedness of all people, the renewal of democracy and why it is important to carry positive expectancy of what the world can be. link

This Far by Faith is a PBS series that examines the African American religious experience through the last three centuries. Rev. Lawson is featured in the episode Witnesses to Faith. link