July 13, 2024

US civil rights hero James Lawson dies at 95

3 min read

By Max Matza, BBC News

James Lawson, the black civil rights activist who travelled to India to study non-violent protest and served as chief strategist to Dr Martin Luther King Jr, has died at the age of 95.

Lawson, a Methodist minister, learned Mahatma Gandhi’s principles of civil disobedience and taught them to protesters opposing racial segregation in the US.

Through his workshops, he instructed countless activists on how to passively resist horrific violence and threats from the police and angry white mobs in order to expose the immorality of racism.

King repeatedly praised his methods, calling him in a speech the day before his assassination one of the great “noble men” of the black struggle in America.

King, who met Lawson when they were both 28-year-olds, also called his ally “the leading theorist and strategist of nonviolence in the world”.

Lawson died in Los Angeles, where he lived, his family said on Monday.

The son and grandson of ministers, he was born in Uniontown, Pennsylvania, in 1928.

Lawson said he was motivated to study non-violence when he was eight-years-old after he slapped a child who had called him a racial slur.

His mother, who was a passivist, asked him “what good” had become of his response. He vowed to never again use violence to resolve a dispute.

His non-violent beliefs were tested early on, when as a university student he refused to be drafted into the US Army to serve in the Korean War.

Lawson served 13 months in prison for draft dodging. After finishing his education, he travelled to Nagpur, India, to work as a missionary and study the resistance tactics developed by Gandhi.

After three years in India, he returned to the US, where he met King, a fellow Methodist minister, at Oberlin College in Ohio.

His belief in non-violence came at a time when opinion in black communities was divided over how to resist institutional racism and segregation.

King convinced Lawson to move to Nashville and begin studying at Vanderbilt University while also teaching non-violent protest techniques.

Several of his students went on to play prominent roles in the civil rights movement, such as future congressman John Lewis and future Washington DC mayor Marion Barry.

After King was assassinated in 1968, Lawson met and eventually befriended the man convicted of killing him.

“Martin King would have gone to visit him. I knew this,” he said of James Earl Ray, King’s killer.

Lawson went on to officiate Ray’s marriage in prison, and came to believe that he was not solely responsible for King’s death.

He was also a founder of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), which played a key role in the racial equality protests of the 1960s.

In a 2020 speech during the funeral of John Lewis, Lawson said “many of us had no choice to do what we tried to do, primarily because at an early age we recognized the wrong under which we were forced to live”.

“And we swore to God that by God’s grace, we would do whatever God called us to do in order to put on the table of the nation’s agenda.

“This must end. Black lives matter.”

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