Rev. James Lawson, different Nashville civil rights veterans see hope for future

On April 20, 1960, Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. stood on a podium at Fisk University and said he had come to Nashville “not to be inspired, but to be inspired by the great movement that was happening in this area took place. ” Community. “

Hundreds of students from Fisk and other historically black colleges sat at all-white lunch counters downtown for weeks. Many were jailed and their attorney’s home was bombed on April 19, leading to King’s visit.

But the students had also just pressured the mayor to publicly admit on the town hall steps that the separation was morally wrong. And within a few weeks the lunch counters would be open to everyone.

It was a huge victory for the students in Nashville, the first major city in the south to give up their downtown accommodations. For those attending nonviolent workshops led by Rev. James Lawson, however, this was only the first step. They played a major role in almost all major civil rights-era campaigns.

Recently, The Associated Press hosted a video call where Lawson and three of his workshop attendees discussed their civil rights work and how it reverberates in today’s justice movements like Black Lives Matter and Voting Rights in Georgia.

CONNECTED:Civil rights attorney James Lawson was rooted in the faith

The Rev. James Lawson is moved during the unveiling of his portrait at Benton Chapel on the Vanderbilt University campus on November 13, 2008.

“Build an Army”

Angeline Butler was only 15 when she started college in Fisk and soon found herself involved in an RPG with students playing the role of the white mobs. She remembered saying “when they asked us to go, we actually went” on her first sit-ins.

“They’re building an army,” she explained. “We went back to the church meeting and discussed how we would react to being yelled at, being called, and throwing objects.”

“It was like a boot camp,” added Bernard LaFayette, who lived with John Lewis at the American Baptist Theological Seminary (now American Baptist College).

Their principles of nonviolence were put to the test when they refused to leave the lunch counters. During one march, “this guy spat on Jim Lawson. And what did Jim Lawson do? He asked for a handkerchief,” recalled LaFayette.

With an arrest warrant in hand, Nashville police arrested Rev. James Lawson, center, a designated divinity student from Vanderbilt University outside First Baptist Church on March 4, 1960. Rev. Lawson, who shook hands with a supporter, was arrested on charges of the Conspiracy to violate state trade and commerce law.

MORE:You Will Not Fight Back: Rev. James Lawson’s nonviolent teachings resulted in his eviction from Vanderbilt 60 years ago

This time the state troops saluted:A nation that united John Lewis greets him on his final journey across the Selma Bridge

Butler added, “Well, he took off his glasses and had to wipe them clean and he had no handkerchief. So he asked the man to give him a handkerchief and the man felt so guilty that he did!” “”

The man was wearing a motorcycle jacket, LaFayette said, and Lawson asked him about motorcycles, and soon the man went with him. Realizing where he was, he ran away, but they never saw him again in a counter protest.

More than sit-ins

Lawson had studied nonviolence in India and was a divinity student at Oberlin College in 1957 when he met King, who urged him to come south and join the fight that Lawson described as “a sacred moment”.

A small group of protesters, mostly black college students, attempted to gain entry to the Tennessee Theater in downtown Nashville on February 21, 1961.  Rev. James Lawson (left) helps the students.

Lawson said the sit-ins were one of several tactics to desegregate downtown. Students also worked on taking down signs signaling that some accommodations were for whites while others, usually inferior, were for blacks. And they put pressure on companies to hire blacks for jobs that were reserved for whites.

As the sit-ins spread, Nashville students helped organize them by forming the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. “Between 1960 and 1965, over 200 cities in the southeast desegregated their inner cities,” Lawson said.

Lawson’s students also led the Freedom Rides and Freedom Summer in Mississippi and, along with King and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, organized the voting and desegregation campaigns in Alabama and Mississippi.

Jim Zwerg, one of the few white students at Fisk, remembered how Lawson linked the movement to his Christian faith. One night while reading the Bible, Dwarf realized that “the gospels were the most wonderful, beautiful, and powerful story of nonviolent direct action ever written. And that was when I said, ‘I have to do more.'”

MORE:“I asked God to be with me”: Freedom Rider recalls brutal Montgomery beating featured in a new movie

Dwarf helped integrate Nashville’s theaters, joined the Freedom Rides, and refused to fight back when he was attacked by a mob in Montgomery, Alabama. Dazed and bloody in a hospital bed, Zwerg told a television interviewer that the trips were continuing to build support.

“What we did in the 20th century was the first great awakening of opposition to the racist systems,” Lawson said. “And I claim that Black Lives Matter is the heir to this campaign.”

Some are trying to brand Black Lives Matter as violent, “just as they labeled our 60s movement as” communist “,” socialist “and” un-American “,” Lawson noted.

Dwarf said the Black Lives Matter movement gave him hope, as did the young people working to end the gun violence after surviving the school shootings.

“Georgia just gave me a lot of hope,” Butler added, citing the electoral election of black and Jewish senators as the culmination of years of organization.

“In terms of combat, they did some of the best follow-up of the 21st century,” agreed Lawson. “That’s the kind of organization that comes out of a nonviolent movement.”

Comments are closed.