Rev. James Lawson, Jr on Revolutionary Nonviolence

I was truly honored to talk on Monday with Rev. James M. Lawson Jr. and Kent Wong. This is the video of our conversation (introduced by Tisch College Dean Dayna Cunningham).

Rev. Lawson has been a leading teacher and tactician of nonviolent direct action since the late 1950s. As one of the legendary figures in the Freedom Movement, he played key roles in the Freedom Rides, the Nashville sit-ins and the broader desegregation movement there, and the Memphis sanitation strike. While working in Nagpur, India (after having served three years in US prisons for antiwar resistance during the Korean conflict), he read a news article about the Montgomery Bus Boycott and rushed home to serve as one of the most important bridges between Gandhian theory and practice and the Black American movement against white supremacy.

Rev. Lawson has never ceased his effective teaching and activism, mainly as part of worker and immigrant rights movements in Los Angeles. His efforts over the past quarter century could be described as “intersectional,” combining economic, racial, environmental, and feminist issues. His work is deeply interracial and intergenerational. Rev. Lawson often collaborates with Kent Wong, who directs UCLA’s Labor Center. They have co-taught a course on nonviolence for twenty years, and Wong has published books on the labor movement, immigrant rights, and the Asian American community.

Their new book is Revolutionary Nonviolence: Organizing for Freedom (by Lawson, with Michael Honey and Kent Wong). As I say on the video, it is a truly important work. It is clear, eloquent, rigorous, and concise. It is also unique in that Rev. Lawson can comment on recent movements, such as Black Lives Matter (BLM), from his personal experience as a leader in the 1950s and 1960s, while also discussing the Freedom Movement with knowledge of the 2020s. The book will therefore serve as a particularly accessible (and challenging) introduction to radical nonviolence for young people, and I intend to assign it.

I asked both visitors to address the biggest misconceptions about nonviolence. Rev. Lawson emphasized its power and effectiveness, countering the misunderstanding that nonviolence is somehow passive and constrained.

The book also addresses several other misconceptions. For instance, I find that people equate nonviolence with protest—and protest with marching in the streets. Rev. Lawson stresses the other activities that are required to accomplish change. For instance, he attributes the success of the Nashville campaign more to a sustained boycott than to the famous sit-ins. He even writes, “The march may the weakest tactic, not the strongest.”

In the book, Rev. Lawson describes BLM as “one of the largest, most creative nonviolent movements that have captured the imagination of the human family.” To organize literally tens of thousands of peaceful marches and events has required intensive planning, discipline, and training. Yet I observe that BLM is not widely described as nonviolent. Critics definitely don’t acknowledge its nonviolence, which is no surprise. More interestingly to me, BLM leaders and would-be allies don’t typically emphasize its nonviolent philosophy, although BLM co-founder Patrisse Cullors endorses Rev. Lawson’s new book. I asked him to comment, and he offered a tactical critique of BLM that I found somewhat unexpected.

In the book, he notes that there is a lot of activism today: more than during his lifetime except for the late 1960s. He calls the “range” of organizing the greatest he has ever seen. “But people are not developing a thesis of social change that is both personally transforming and transforming of society and of the immediate social environment, and that is part of the power of a nonviolent philosophy and theory.” I asked him to elaborate on that remark, which he did.

I also asked about Ukraine and Russia. In the book, Rev. Lawson mentions that anti-communist dissidents in the former Soviet world read Gandhi and King. I’d add that Polish dissidents invited Bayard Rustin to provide trainings in the 1980s. I have had the privilege of working with pro-democracy organizers in Ukraine since 2015, and I can testify that they deeply appreciate the Black American Freedom Movement. I asked both speakers about the prospects of nonviolent resistance in (possibly) occupied Ukraine and in Russia. Rev. Lawson’s response was interesting. He is a consistent pacifist who has earned a right to that position by making sacrificial commitments to rigorous nonviolence for 75 years. I must admit that I am not so consistent: I think that Ukrainians must oppose the invasion with military force and that we should support them. But Rev. Lawson is certainly right that Putin cannot accomplish his goals with violence and that nonviolent resistance can play an important role in both Ukraine and Russia (and in Belarus). His prophetic voice is essential for that reason, as well as for our struggles in the USA.

See also: the case for (and against) nonviolence; civilian resistance in Ukraine, Russia, and Belarus; prospects for nonviolent resistance in Ukraine and in Russia; syllabus of a course on the Philosophy of Martin Luther King, Jr.; three new cases for learning how to organize and make collective change.