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The Rev. James Lawson takes part in a panel discussion during the launch of a research institute named in his honor at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tenn. Lawson, pastor emeritus of Holman United Methodist Church in Los Angeles, was expelled from Vanderbilt in 1960 for his involvement in civil rights protests. Photo by Mike DuBose, UM News.

Rev. James Lawson faithfully advances nonviolence work

By JIM PATTERSON, Contributing Writer


NASHVILLE, Tenn. (UMNS)One of the most celebrated and influential United Methodists is lending his name to an institute at Vanderbilt University that will promote and study nonviolence.

The Rev. James Lawson, who has been called the "architect of the civil rights movement," has given his blessing to the James Lawson Institute for the Research and Study of Nonviolent Movements at Vanderbilt University.

Lawson, 93, said that he will act as "spiritual adviser" to the institute, along with his ongoing work advising, teaching and writing. Lawson released a book in February on how to use nonviolent protest to cause change, "Revolutionary Nonviolence: Organizing for Freedom." He is starting work on a memoir, scheduled for pub- lishing by Random House in 2023. 

"Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. once referred to Lawson as the leading theorist and strategist of nonviolence in the world," said Daniel Diermeier, chancellor of Vanderbilt, during an April 7 event to introduce and celebrate the new institute. "Without Rev. Lawson's strategic ingenuity, spiritual guidance and moral example, the civil rights movement as we know it would not have existed."

The institute will "work toward a world with no violence," said Phillis Isabella Sheppard, professor of religion, psychology and culture at Vanderbilt who was tapped as the institute’s first director. "This is either a gran- diose fantasy to believe that such a world is possible or it expresses the most profound dimension to the work of this institute. I think it is the latter,” she said.

"Since 2000, I have done formal workshops on teaching nonviolence to activists," Lawson said. "So JLI is an effort to imitate the work I did across the South in helping to teach mostly Black folk how you can desegre- gate and help people—Black and White alike—to change, be converted out of racism into a desegregated society."

The Nashville model of nonviolence developed by Lawson, featuring sit-ins at downtown lunch counters, became a model for other cities in the 1960s. He had traveled to India in 1953 and worked as a youth minister for two years while studying Gandhian philosophy.

"JLI is devoted to the notion of reaching into the community … to help people see that there is a science of nonviolence that is as effective as the science of electricity," Lawson said. "That’s what Gandhi said. If you follow certain principles, you will find out that the consequences will be as predictable as the laws that surround ether and electricity. And that’s my thesis."

After returning from India, Lawson was recruited to train and advise civil rights activists.

"He had a fateful meeting with Dr. Martin Luther King at Oberlin College," Diermeier said. "At that meeting, Dr. King urged the Rev. Lawson to participate in the urgent struggle in the American South."

While studying at Vanderbilt Divinity School, Lawson conducted workshops where he taught college students the principles of nonviolent protest. The late Rep. John Lewis, who would go on to serve more than 30 years in Congress, was one of his students.


Lawson was an adviser for the Freedom Riders who were beaten while challenging segregation on interstate buses and bus terminals in the South. News footage of the violence caused a turning point in the civil rights movement. He also advised the Little Rock Nine, students who desegregated Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas, in 1957, following the Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court ruling that segregation in public schools was unconstitutional. 

Lawson said the violent Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol aimed at preventing President Biden from taking office, was a stark contrast to Black Lives Matter protests, which [have been] overwhelmingly peaceful.

"Right now, we’ve got a very violent political situation," he said. "It has to be de-escalated." 

"In 2020, the United States had the largest nonviolent campaign in the history of our nation, from May to August,” Lawson noted. "(There were) demonstrations in every state (and) more than 15-25 million people participated … in more than 2,500 locations."

The protests were "heavily mixed” with White and Black participants of all ages, he said. "The violence came from the police, the looters and anarchists," Lawson said. "They say it was very violent. Well, that’s a lie. That’s one of the lies like racism."


Diermeier said Lawson paid a heavy price for his activism, noting that Vanderbilt University expelled him in 1960 for his activism. He finished his theology degree at Boston University The Vanderbilt expulsion was a national news story and some students and faculty left the Nashville university because of it. Vanderbilt and Lawson eventually reconciled, and he has since returned to teach there and selected it as a repository for his papers.

From 1974 to 1999, Lawson served as pastor of Holman United Methodist Church in Los Angeles, where he is now pastor emeritus. He continued after retirement to lecture and train students in nonviolence. The Jan- uary 6 insurrection illustrated the continuing need for it, he said.

"I maintain that nonviolent thinking, history and language is what a democratic society must have," Lawson said.  “If you don’t offer a nonviolent way of making changes, then you get Jan. 6.”

Recruiting youth to the nonviolent philosophy will be a priority at JLI, Sheppard said. Two groups, one for 13- to 17-year-olds and another for college students, will be formed. The younger group, called the youth council, will be comprised of students who want to learn about nonviolence. They will work on programming to attract their peers.

"The second group is the college cohort, where students from across Nashville’s local colleges will gather monthly to immerse themselves in thoughtful discussion to enhance their knowledge and commitment to strategic action," Sheppard said. "This is not immersion for the sake of immersion, but immersion for the sake of change." 

Lawson maintains that a world of nonviolence is not a pipe dream, but an achievable goal. "One of the things that Gandhi taught me, by my study and research, is that nonviolent power is the creative power of life itself and the power that produced our universe and human life.

"If human beings could learn to tap and use that power, instead of the many powers that do exist, human beings will create a world that's beyond our imagination because they will be tapping the energy that created us, whether they call that God or just the energy of the universe," he said.

Jim Patterson is a UM News reporter in Nashville, Tenn. 


COVID masquerading as the predator in 1 Peter 5:8

‘Be sober, be vigilant; because your adversary the devil, as a roaring lion, walketh about, seeking whom he may devour’


Fellows, Jr./

It is past the time for clergy in America to stop playing Russian Roulette concerning COVID-19 with the lives of their congregants.

The writer is not a member of the ordained clergy, but rather a lay Christian believer in the Word of God bearing due diligence in its study and meditation with the guidance of the Holy Spirit. Our Creator also endowed each of us with a mind and common sense.

With respect to the COVID pandemic, the faith community is divided—a mirror of the national optic; some advocating vaccinations, social distancing, and the wearing of masks, while others assail any and all protective measures, relying instead on their God-faith for complete protection. The latter is what many of their pastors are preaching to them on Sunday morning from the pulpit. What’s at work here is Faith and Foolishness.

Now consider the incontrovertible truth.


Those who professed a belief in a living God are numbered among the more than 1 million COVID fatalities in the US, alone. Presumably, that number swells around the globe. Bishops, pastors, priests, and missionaries have perished from COVID, which is acting like the predator spoken of in 1 Peter 5:8, none other than Satan: “Be sober, be vigilant; because your adversary the devil, as a roaring lion, walks about, seeking whom he may devour.”

COVID is a predator, re-creating itself as ever more aggressive killer variants seeking unprotected humans to devour like unprotected sheep by bears, wolves, and coyotes.

The clergy must not side-step the warnings of the Bible contained in 1 Corinthians and John 8: 44:


“For God is not the author of confusion, but of peace, as in all churches of the saints.” 1 Corinthians 14:33

“Ye are of your father the devil, and the lusts of your father ye will do. He was a murderer from the beginning, and abode not in the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he speaks a lie, he speaks of his own: for he is a liar, and the father of it.” John 8: 44

Pastors, urge your congregants to get inoculated so that those that may be carriers of the virus, but asymptomatic (not showing any signs) will not transmit the virus to the most vulnerable among them—seniors with conditions, and children.

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