James Lawson, one of the most important figures in the entire civil rights movement, was born on September 22, 1928 in Uniontown, Pennsylvania. He grew up in Massillon, Ohio and attended Baldwin-Wallace College. A life-long pacifist, Lawson spent 14 months in jail for refusing the draft in 1951. Upon his release from prison, he traveled to a Methodist missionary organization in Nagpur, India where he studied Gandhi’s Satyagraha, a method of nonviolent resistance. Back in the United States in 1955, Lawson entered the Graduate School of Theology at Oberlin College. It was at Oberlin that Lawson met Martin Luther King, who urged him to come south and help in the burgeoning civil rights movement.
Under the auspices of the Fellowship of Reconciliation, Lawson moved to Nashville and in 1959 began conducting workshops in nonviolent resistance to local college students. That fall, he and the students began “test runs” of resistance tactics at various Nashville stores. His students included such civil rights luminaries as Bernard Lafayette, John Lewis, Marion Barry, Diane Nash, and James Bevel. In late February of 1960, the Nashville sit-ins began in earnest, earning Lawson arrest and eventual expulsion from Vanderbilt Divinity School.
In 1962 Lawson became pastor of Centenary Methodist Church in Memphis, Tennessee. Six years later, it was Reverend Lawson who invited Dr. King to Memphis to help dramatize the sanitation workers’ struggle against the city. King was murdered in Memphis on April 4. In 1974 Lawson moved west to become pastor at Holman United Methodist Church in Los Angeles, where he still conducts workshops in nonviolence. In 1996 Vanderbilt Divinity School honored Lawson with its Distinguished Alumnus Award.
Lawson is notoriously abstemious with his speeches. As a consequence, very few have ever been published. In this speech, given at the apogee of the student sit-in movement of 1960 at Shaw University, Lawson offers the movement a Christian foundation for its existence and warrants for action. Civil rights historians recognize that the Shaw conference was the birth of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC)—a group that would become the avant-garde of the freedom movement. The conference was coordinated by Ella Baker, a Shaw graduate and a former Executive Director of the Southern Christian Leadership