MARCH 3, 1960
Vanderbilt University expelled James Lawson for taking part in a sit-in in Nashville, Tennessee. Throughout the civil rights movement, he assisted Martin Luther King Jr. in teaching the principles of nonviolence. It was a lesson Lawson learned when he was young:
“I had my first racial insult hurled at me as a child. I struck out at that child and fought the child physically. Mom was in the kitchen working. In telling her the story she, without turning to me, said, ‘Jimmy, what good did that do?’ And she did a long soliloquy then about our lives and who we were and the love of God and the love of Jesus in our home, in our congregation. And her last sentence was, ‘Jimmy, there must be a better way.’ In many ways that’s the pivotal event of my life.”
He joined the Methodist Youth Fellowship and made headlines when he refused to report for the draft in 1951. He served 14 months in prison for refusing to fight in the war. Afterward, he traveled as a missionary to India, where he studied the nonviolent teachings of Mahatma Gandhi.
Back in the U.S., he met King, and the two began to work together. “We were convinced that through nonviolent struggle, we could change the face of this nation and begin the process whereby we could really become a democracy with liberty, equality and justice for all people,” Lawson recalled.
At King’s urging, he dropped out of graduate school and joined the movement. Lawson set his sights on sit-ins in Nashville. Student Diane Nash said she didn’t think nonviolence would work, but told him that nobody else was trying to do anything about this system. The sit-ins proved successful. Later, as a pastor at Centenary Methodist Church in Memphis, Lawson invited King to speak in support of sanitation workers, only to see his friend assassinated the next day.
“Our country is a country trapped,” he said, “embedded, addicted to the mythology of violence.” That is why nonviolence still matters, he said. “Our nation must be changed.”