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[Interviewer] Uh, one day someone once told- I think it was Harris Walkman, told us a story about- I forgot exactly who it was, but some African-Americans went to see Ghandi way back, in the '30s. [Lawson] '36. [Interviewer] And he said that that America would be the true test of nonviolence. Um, can you tell me, what did he mean by that? [Lawson] Uh those are really not his words. Uh it was Howard Thurman and Susan's Thurman and Eddie and ?Carol? Bishop, he wasn't a bishop then, and uh it was just the four of them and, they had a long conversation with Gandhi and all and then as they were preparing to leave they try to persuade Gandhi to make a visit to America, to the United States and he said, he couldn't do what his work there, and then he said, "Did you have much to
tell the negro." and he still declined but then he said something like this, I cant' remember it exactly, he said that he had not been able to persuade the western world about the efficacy of his experiment in non-violence and that perhaps the negro in america would succeed where he had failed or something like that not maybe in those exact words, but uh- of that character he was concerned for the violence of western civilization and for its failure to see any kinds of options and he had a sense that if western civilization would not the deescalate its violence that it would destroy itself and take the whole world with it. [Pause] So that's what he said. [Interviewer] Why the American negro, why?...
[Lawson] Because he recognized he knew enough about the plight of the negro in the United States to recognize Jim Crow law, lynching, a whole variety of ills, of tyranny imposed upon people of color. So he- uh hoped that perhaps you know, in the struggle, against that racism and all that it might be the negro who, without non violent strategies and tactics and theories and cause it to break forth in western civilization which incidentally is one of the consequences of the King Movement if I can use that term as to to focus that historical moment more into um define in it as a- t-the not the nonviolent struggle. [Pause] [Interviewer] Um why don't you just talk a little bit it- [PA] He should do, should do- [Interviewer] Just ask him to- [Inaudible chatter] We can cut for a second. [Cameraman] Oh ok. [Interviewer] ?Play it again? [Pause]
[Lawson] Pacifism in the western world, Europe and United States, in the '30s and '40s and '50s and '60s and probably beyond, tended to be more passive about their anti tyranny, anti injustice, anti racism, anti poverty values. [Pause] They liked the term non resistance and pacifism. Mohandas K Gandhi, can be called the father of non violence in the 20th century just as Albert Einstein is called the father of physics. The 20th century is the
central of the explosion of 50 to 80 various disciplines of human knowledge. Gandhi's 50 years of experiences produced a science of nonviolence as an effective way to change tyranny, violence, and especially the spiritual poisons of violence and tyranny so what King tapped into but what I- uh basically as the major teacher of nonviolence in the 1960s pushed was on the one side that we have a methodology I called it in the '50s an approach, I called the Ghandian experiment, an approach to social change. It was an approach that had theory in it,
strategy in it, and methodology. So that is un- not learned very- has not been learned very well by great great numbers of people even many people who say that they are nonviolent practitioners and what we did in Nashville especially, but in our efforts to develop the movement in the '60s was to teach and train people in the nonviolent um science of bringing about social change. Specifically aimed at eradicating segregation and racism. [Interviewer] Ok, let's cut. Yes. --Um why don't - [Lawson] Ok. [Deep breath] [Long Pause] [Lawson] Violence in the 20th century, has been ineffective. It has helped
various western nations to do, domination and to build up their military for controlling the rest of the earth but it is not produced a human race that does not want a better world and a better society. Specifically in the United States, 6000 lynchings or more in the 20th century did not stop the aspirations of black people. To get education, to do as much with their lives as they could, to resist the stuff in every way they could resist. Now, there is a history in the black community of essentially using nonviolent techniques. Turning the other cheek ,walking the second mile.
There's no movement in 400 years in the black community to return hatred for hatred, an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth. There were some violent protests in the history of slavery. These largely failed. There were no violent protests in the 20th century and there will of spirituality in the negro community. That Martin King, both, emulated. When on December the 5th 1955, when the Montgomery bus boycott that first day had been about 90 some percent successful, the buses were largely empty. King said in his opening speech at the Holt Street Baptist Church- I cannot exactly quote, but he said some things like, "we're going to do this and a christian manner, we will not be burning any crosses in downtown uh um Montgomery. We will no go- not go out and lynch anyone. We're not gonna
hate as we pursue this, we're going to do this with a christian love." He said that term quite specifically. In other words he was representing a black spirituality uh expressed maybe by James Johnson once the NAACP executives se-se- um secretary and one of the composers of Lift Every Voice And Sing that I'm not gonna l- I'm not I'm not going to allow your hatred to cause me to get in the ditch with you. I'm not gonna allow you to pull me so low that I hate you in return and that of course is a part of the ancient wisdom of the human race often ignored. [Pause] [Interviewer] Um. Ok. I wanna talk to you about na- [Lawson] Excuse me, may I add one piece. [Interviewer] Sure. [Lawson] One of the people who helped me a great bit- a good deal in the 1950s was Howard Thurman who wrote a little book called, Jesus and the
Disinherited in about 1949 1950, it's still being printed or reprinted and he told m- me in that book what I had learned to my practice of the ethics of Jesus he said, "the gospel of Jesus is a survival kit." Those were his exact words the gospel of Jesus' not the gospel about Jesus the gospel of Jesus is a survival kit for those who have their backs up against the wall. Those who are the people who are being repressed and oppressed and um and vilified that that was a great revelation to me when I saw that. It confirmed what I thought about Jesus. [Interviewer] Ok let's cut. [Camera man]Yes. [Pause]
[Lawson] The purpose of the training in Nashville was the same purpose as boot camp, in the army. You bring people together and you helped them to begin to discipline themselves to work together as a unit using nonviolence instead of violent. That was the purpose, of the training. [Pause] [Interviewer] Mhm. Um, you call it your major experiment wh-wha-what do you mean? [Lawson] Well, I I did a number of things in college and after, on a personal level but I had never tried to organize against a major social disease and cruelty. I was elated with the Montgomery bus boycott I knew that was
on target and the more I read about it because I was in India at the time as a united Methodist missionary in fact, a campus minister and campus coach. [Laughs] And the more I read about him, the more I equated myself with King, he was in the international papers and magazines, he was in the papers of India, he was on BBC, he was on all India Radio from December 5th 1955 it was uh astonishing news for much of the rest of the world. Very different reaction in the United States. I knew that was what we needed and what I've been hoping for, so I moved south. King- Martin King and I shook hands the first time in '57 and he urged me not to wait but to come south immediately and I agreed that I would do that
and what I went south then in January of 1958, I was the southern secretary for the fellowship for reconciliation which is the largest, quote,"pacifist group in United States," which I had met in 1947. Between 1957, the end of the Montgomery bus boycott, and 1959 the major question King- southern christian leadership conference was asking is, "what's the next step?" and I asked it everywhere I went as I traveled and Little Rock where I trained, the non- the nine Little Rock youngsters and '58 on nonviolence as over against passivity. "Do not fight back," they were told and I said, "You can fight back. Fight back non violently and all," so the question was where we go from here. Kelly Miller Smith,
who founded the Nashville Christian Leadership Council with Andrew White and a number of others we talked that question all the time. And so then I decided, with Kelly Miller Smith and Andrew White and a number of others, why don't we in Nashville non violently think our way through to the next step and we did this with workshops in 1959 the winter and spring. Where we were trying to assess what's the next step for fighting this stuff and desegregating this country. And that's when we made the decision to desegregate downtown Nashville and to begin recruiting in the summer of '59 for a series of workshops as we planned the strategy to desegregate downtown Nashville from a non violent perspective. So that's what I meant I saw that as an experiment
which is to copy Gandhi. No one had done it before, no one in the country was asking the question, why don't we pull down these white colored signs, these no Jews signs, no dirty Irish sign, no chink signs, no Jap signs, no Mex signs. These were not signs by law, these were signs by the spirituality of the nation but no one was protesting. So it was especially black women in Nashville coming to our workshops week after week who said, "let's begin downtown that's where there's great indignity white colored signs over everything and also mistreatment from o- white people in the downtown area." [Interviewer] Ok. Let's cut. Yes, good we ha- we have 14 on this row. Ok. Reverend Lawson we were talking about Nashville. [Lawson] Yup. [Interviewer] We wanted you to talk a little bit about the recruitment of students. You know- [Lawson] Alright.
[Interviewer] Talk about- about that. [Lawson] Well we had workshops in winter of '59 spring of '59 here in Nashville making a decision to desegregate downtown Nashville and we then decided that we would recruit students to do it. Now part of that was my idea, because young people, you can have no revolution without the young people. Uh I'm I'm in my 20s saying this but that's the reality. They bring a human energy and idealism that folk over 35 or 40 or 50 do not have they bring both idealism and sheer physical energy and they bring the fact that they are shaping their lives. So we made the concerted effort we would recruit students that they
at Fisk and Tennessee state and ABC especially these three black institution wou- Pablo would provide us with the bulk of our people about manpower for that downtown campaign, so we recruited. [Interviewer] Talk about how the um- One of the things I think that that happened. Oh- yea. Y-Yea. Let's cut. Um. [Lawson] ?True to its students? [Interviewer] Ok got that. Um, one a- one thing that that that- and this doesn't have to be long, I wanted to just talk about that the success of of of the Nashville boycotts because we've talked to students. We talked to one student in Howards he was just galvanized into action after that. And and- [Lawson] Mhm. Right. [Interviewer] how this was the shot, you know, heard around the country. Especially the south of the campus talk about that. [Lawson] We had a specific strategy we knew the techniques we were going to use sit in, poster walks, economic- boycott marches and parades it's necessary that we have we're a target
we had a set strategy. we had the techniques in the methodology we were gonna use. So I was able to train folk in the workshop about these different techniques that we were gonna use. [Pause] [Interviewer] Talk a little bit about the success, you know, and and how that success- [Lawson] Well that's that's basically at the heart of the success th-the the the training, the strategizing, and then the carrying out of the program from a plan. We didn't write a plan down formally as far as I remember, but we talked the plan out, we thought it out, and then we carried out so and we became a highly disciplined movement and we had the tremendous blend of community and students engaged we did some radical things such as we had no mass meeting where we didn't have a least a
student speak and a community person maybe a clergy ?melee? person we organize the central committee to provide the structure once we hit the public phase and I'm not structure we said we will have the students always chair it so that we would be training persons to give leadership in those two categories speaking and sharing some students who had reservations but my insistence was you're engaged in a struggle you have to learn these skills and this is a part of how you run a movement for social change. [Interviewer] Um one of the things- this- and this- should not be very long, but you know- [Lawson] Mhm. [Interviewer] One of the of the things I I think is really fascinating is everybody talks about mass meetings and I think that in some ways in history it's been
forgotten what a mass meeting was, you know, I I was born and raised in New York, you know, I was 10 years old in ?September?. What was a mass meeting? [Lawson] Mass meeting was another form of the worshiper of the church on sunday mornings it was an effort to bring people together to inspire them to see what the goals and purposes of the past that you engaged and we're all about, to recruit people, to inform people, and to help build a common sensibility that this is a task that needs doing and that we can do it and we are other instruments of god to make it happen so that's why the mass meeting became such an important vehicle. It should be said in most places we did not have a media that was friendly. If they happen to be
a television picture that was more by accident than it was by design even though national television did eventually come in and take a lot of pictures, but again that was not our report it was their report. And so a part of the my understanding to nonviolence was a good try to do your own communication the mass meeting was a part of that also cr- d-doing a mimeograph sheets was a part of it. [Interviewer] Mhm,um, one thing- one one phase that occurred to me when I was trying to figure out what a mass meeting was was like political church, was that what a mass meeting was? [Lawson] Well if you use the word politics from the point of view of how you build the community that works together for governing itself, then yes but yet remember the elements of
our mass meetings were spirituality, music, talking about doing god's will talk in my getting thinking of god on earth and that was the language that was used in a lot of the mass meetings across the southeastern part of the country. Um, educating our people about what we would do in educating people about nonviolence so if you if you use politics in the broader sense then that's it a good term but as practiced in United States it might be a bad term.
American Experience
Freedom Riders
Raw Footage
Interview with James Lawson, 1 of 4
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WGBH (Boston, Massachusetts)
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Episode Description
James Lawson was a Methodist minister; graduate student at Vanderbilt University on the Montgomery, Alabama to Jackson, Mississippi (Trailways) ride. May 24, 1961
Race and Ethnicity
American history, African Americans, civil rights, racism, segregation, activism, students
(c) 2011-2017 WGBH Educational Foundation
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Chicago: “American Experience; Freedom Riders; Interview with James Lawson, 1 of 4,” WGBH, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (GBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC, accessed July 21, 2024,
MLA: “American Experience; Freedom Riders; Interview with James Lawson, 1 of 4.” WGBH, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (GBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC. Web. July 21, 2024. <>.
APA: American Experience; Freedom Riders; Interview with James Lawson, 1 of 4. Boston, MA: WGBH, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (GBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC. Retrieved from