Remembering Rev. James Lawson, Pioneer Of Nonviolent Protest

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By Joseph Williams, Word in Black

After a lifetime of activism, the man Dr. King called “the leading theorist and strategist of nonviolence in the world,” has died at age 95.

Rev. James Lawson speaks during the South Coast Interfaith Council’s “A Season for Nonviolence” at Unitarian Universalist Church on Sunday, January 29, 2006 (Photo by Jeff Gritchen/Digital First Media/Orange County Register via Getty Images).

As a schoolboy growing up in northern Ohio, when a white boy called him the N-word, James Lawson reacted the way many Black people would have in that situation: he slapped the other child. His mother’s response to the incident, however, changed his life. 

“What good did that do, Jimmy?” she asked.

That simple question set Rev. James Lawson Jr. on a path towards pacifism, using it as a tool that helped him change history. A close ally of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., Lawson was the architect of King’s strategy of nonviolence — even in the face of white brutality — as a means to eradicate Jim Crow in the South. And he trained generations of civil rights titans, including Diane Nash and the late Rep. John Lewis. 

Lawson, 95, died Tuesday in Los Angeles after a brief illness. He had spent years in Southern California as a teacher, activist, and community organizer. King once called Lawson “the leading theorist and strategist of nonviolence in the world.”

But The New York Times also described him as “a traveling troubleshooter in a land of night riders, where African Americans were beaten, shot, arrested and lynched.” 

Lawson led pickets at segregated stores, organized protests at lunch counters, taught countless sessions on the principles of nonviolence, and led voter registration drives. All of which left him all too familiar with police nightsticks and jail cells. 

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