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A Call to be Vigilant: The Reverend James Lawson’s Message for Defending Human Rights and Freedom

Written by Dr. Veena Howard
September 13, 2023

The late Congressman John Lewis offered the highest praise to the Reverend James M. Lawson, Jr. when he called him the “architect of nonviolent movement of the United States of America.” In a recent conversation with me, the Reverend Lawson reflected on the focus of the 2023 Parliament, “A Call to Conscience: Defending Freedom and Human Rights.” Lawson praised the Parliament for this theme, which calls on people of faith [and no faith] traditions to defend precious freedom and human rights. He told me that in the United States, securing freedom and basic human rights required hard work, sacrifice, and millions of Americans’ defiance of the racist Jim Crow laws and other xenophobic and sexist systems. He reminds people to remain alert of the insidious structures of violence, what he calls, “racism, sexism, militarism, and plantation capitalism,” which hold the power to deprive fellow humans of their rights, dignity, and freedom.

As a Civil Rights Leader, Lawson recalls that in the late 1950s and 1960s, he held workshops in Nashville, Tennessee, for students from colleges in the surrounding area. He taught them strategic nonviolence to fight segregation and violence through “soul-force,” or “love force.” 

The Reverend Lawson (b.  1928-), then a young minister, mobilized college students and some church leaders to test the method of the power of love (inspired by Jesus’ love and Gandhi’s nonviolent resistance movement in India). Lawson’s strategic workshops and role-play training prepared students to confront segregation through sit-ins at lunch counters and other public places in Nashville, Tennessee. Lawson’s nonviolent struggle became an exemplary model for a wide-spread acts of resistance across the U.S. South. He told me the Nonviolent Movement of America (he also calls it Martin Luther King-Rosa Parks movement) led to different kinds of liberty for people. The success of nonviolent mobilizations energized people to work on issues relating to not just eradicating racism “concerning Black people,” but also to prison reform, immigration reform, environmental justice, and solving homelessness. The Revered Lawson’s methods and message are timely, and they serve as a call to conscience to defend human rights and freedom.

It is not surprising that in his last speech, The Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. called the Reverend Lawson the great tactician of nonviolent action in the U.S. South. In his Sermon, “Love in Action,” Dr. King emphasized the power of Jesus’ love, and he simultaneously warned against the forces of injustice and discrimination: “We must continue to see the Cross as the magnificent symbol of love conquering hate, and light overcoming darkness. But in the midst of this glowing affirmation, let us never forget that our Lord and Master was nailed to the Cross because of human blindness.” The Reverend Lawson, who is now almost 95, continues to teach the next generations of activist leaders through free public workshops, counseling, and his academic classes. He warns against the “human blindness,” that concerned Dr. King. The threat of exploitation, and injustice is rampant all around us. With his deep conviction, Lawson calls on his fellow people to use nonviolent methods strategically to confront violence and unjust economic and social structures and systems that deprive fellow humans of their basic rights and dignity.

Rev. Lawson was honored at the 2023 Parliament of the World’s Religions with a keynote delivered by Dr. Veena Howard as part of the Conscience Plenary on Wednesday, August 16th.

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