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[Xmca-l] James Lawson and perezhivanie

James Lawson is the Methodist preacher who trained the young members of the SNCC in non-violent action and wrote their constitution. I paste below and attach an excerpt from my book "The Origins of Collective Decision Making" which narrates Lawson's life up until April 1960. Perezhivanie was not the topic under discussion so it is not mentioned in the text, but xmca-ers should be able to see it, an example of perezhivanie:


James Lawson was born in 1928, in Uniontown, Pennsylvania. His father, James Snr., was the grandson of an escaped slave, and a Minister for the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church in New England.

Via the Free African Society(FAS) the Methodists had recruited freed slaves in Philadelphiain 1787, but as a result of a racist incident, some left to found the African Methodist Episcopal Church(AMEC). Nonetheless, many African Americans stayed with the United Methodist Church. The AMEC split started in Philadelphia and the AMEC Zion Church was a split that came out of New York. It was to AMEC Zion, James Lawson was born.

However, Lawson returned to The United Methodist Church, created by a 1939 merger of several branches of the Methodist Church, which set up five regional ‘jurisdictions’ of Methodists in the US, organized to maintain regionally identity and a sixth, called the ‘Central Jurisdiction’ which combined the Black annual conferences, thus building segregation into the constitution of the Church.The Methodists went through a long and painful process, carried out in accordance with the Methodist Code of Discipline, which mandates the principle of Majority, to re-integrate the white and Black, but it was not till after 1964 that Black conferences started to merge into white conferences. At the local level, congregations continued much as before. So it was within the Black section of the segregated United Methodist Church, that James Lawson became a Methodist.

James Snr. was a militant preacher; he packed a 38 pistol and set up branches of the NAACP wherever he was assigned to preach. After serving at St. James AMEZ Church in Massillon, Ohio, he transferred to the Lexington Annual Conference of the Central Jurisdiction of the United Methodist Church. James Snr. was no pacifist and according to Lawson he “refused to take any guff from anyone, particularly on the point of race” and “insisted that he was going to be treated as a man.”

Lawson’s mother, Philane May Cover, on the other hand, was decidedly nonviolent. Lawson’s challenge, which was to form his character, was to reconcile his father’s militancy with his mother’s nonviolence. Lawson grew up in Massillon. One day, at the age of 10, Lawson was asked by his mother to run an errand:

A little white child in an automobile yelled ‘nigger’ out the opened window. I walked over ... and, since I was in a hurry running my mother’s errand, I smacked the child and went on my way. When the Lawson kids got called ‘nigger’ on the streets or at school, we usually fought. I don’t know where we got that from, except that we figured that it was something to fight over. (Lawson, cited in King, 1999)

On the return trip home, aware of possible repercussions, Lawson tried to find the parents of the offending child, to talk to them, but the car was gone. Once home, he told his mother of the incident. Lawson’s mother replied, “Jimmy, what good did that do?”

She talked about who I was, the fact of God’s love, that we were a family of love and that such an incident could not hurt me, because of who I was. I don’t remember anyone else being around, but a stillness took over my being at that moment. It was, as I realized much later on, a mystical experience. In a very real way, my life stood still. I realized in that stillness that I had changed forever. One of the phrases my mother used in her conversation with me was that ‘there must be a better way’. I determined, from then on, that I would find the better way. (Lawson, cited in King, 1999, pp. 187-188)

He first became acquainted with Gandhi’s experiments in nonviolence as a child, thanks to the African-American press which the family discussed around the dinner table, and had read Gandhi’s autobiography as a teenager. At Baldwin Wallace College, a liberal arts Methodistcollege in Berea, Ohio, he studied Thoreau, Gandhi and Tolstoy, and the pacifist theologians Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Reinhold Niebuhr. At age 19, he became a draft resister, refusing service in the Korean War. Executive director of Fellowship Of Reconciliation (FOR), A. J. Muste,frequently visited to lecture at the College:

All of us in history classes were required to hear Muste. I was thrilled. He made me realize that I was not alone in my experimentation, that there was a world movement, and a national movement. ... He acquainted me with the Fellowship Of Reconciliation, which I joined on the spot in 1947. That meant that I got exposed to their book list.

After hearing a lecture by A. J. Muste, he joined FOR and CORE. Muste was instrumental thereafter in strengthening Lawson’s nonviolent orientation, directing him towards Gandhi and later facilitating his entry into the sit-in and boycott movement beginning in the South. In the late 1940s and early 1950s Lawson had organized sit-ins and protests directed at establishments that discriminated against blacks in Massillon, long before the Montgomery bus-boycott.

He was also active with the National Conference of Methodist Youth. Although a member of a segregated Methodist Church, he found plenty of support for his stands against racial discrimination and war from his white colleagues and church fellows. While he was in prison serving thirteen months of a two and a half year term for draft resistance in 1952, he was re-elected as Vice-President of the NCMY.

Wesleyan Methodism was central to Lawson’s outlook. Just as John Wesley had sought to cleanse individuals of iniquity, so could society be purged of the social sins of slavery, segregation, poverty, and war.Generations of African American Methodists from Harriet Tubman (AMEZ) and Henry M. Turner (AME) in the nineteenth century, to Rosa Parks (AME) and James Farmer (MEC), were led to social justice activism by this Methodist heritage.

Lawson used his prison time to read and think. Writing from prison in 1952 aged 23 years old and yet to enter the seminary, Lawson said he aspired to emulate “the life of Jesus, St. Francis, George Fox, Gandhi, Buddha... and other great religious persons.” These figures attached little importance to “theology but (to their) experience with God.”Further, he noted “religious failures today are in (the arena of) experience and practice, not theology.” When Lawson entered prison, he was a Christian pacifist.He told Mary King however, that his “first commitment was to work on race,” and conscientious objection came second.By the time of his release, he had advanced to Gandhian nonviolence. He wondered “why can’t a mass non-violent revolution be staged throughout the South where the segregation pattern is much like the ‘untouchables’ of India? Such a movement would have to start with one person who had the Christian vision to make such a revolution a reality in his own life.” Gandhian nonviolence became the synthesizing factor for Lawson’s religious thinking: the militancy of his father’s Methodism and the Christian pacifism that he drew from his mother.

Muste arranged for Lawson to visit India after his release from prison with a letter of introduction to activists in the Gandhian movement, and he remained in India from May 1953 to 1956, working at Hislop College in Nagpur, reading Indian literature and working with Gandhi’s movement. Lawson’s practice would remain deeply religious; his nonviolence was saturated with the message of Christian love, and blended with principles synthesized from a broad range of religious and secular sources, both Eastern and Western. His aim was the “mass education and training of people in the use of nonviolent direct action techniques.” Lawson insisted that “you are fighting a system, not an individual, not a race, or not the people of another country, but a system.”

He continued his study of pacifism and Gandhian nonviolence at Oberlin College, Ohio. While still in India, he had read about Martin Luther King and his successful leadership of the Montgomery bus boycott.King’s lecture at Oberlin on February 6, 1957, fortified his long-held intention to work in the South for transformative social change. After King’s lecture to a packed audience, he and Lawson talked together at dinner.Though Lawson was contemplating study for a Ph.D., King told him “don’t wait, but come south now!” adding that there was no one else like Lawson.Muste arranged for FOR to hire Lawson as southern field secretary to be stationed at Nashville in January 1958. Upon his arrival, he found that Glenn Smiley, national field director of FOR, had arranged for Lawson to run a full schedule of workshops ‒ including one to take place early that year at the first annual meeting of the SCLC in Columbia, South Carolina.

At the SCLC meeting, King made an exuberant introduction of Lawson as FOR’s new regional representative and discussed the organization’s role in Montgomery, telling delegates to be sure to attend Lawson’s workshop on nonviolence. King took his seat in the first pew, waiting for the three-hour session to start:

Martin did that at every SCLC meeting as long as he lived. He would ask me to conduct an afternoon workshop, usually two or three hours, and he would arrange for it to be ‘at-large’ so that everyone could attend, with nothing else to compete. He put it on the schedule himself. A few minutes early, he would show up and sit alone, as an example, in the front row.

Back in Nashville, Lawson continued with Monday evening workshops during the autumn of 1959 in which he trained the students who were to be the core of the Nashville sit-in movement. As a result of his involvement with the sit-ins Lawson was expelled from Vanderbilt, but he enrolled with Boston University to finish his degree in theology,while continuing to work with the students. Several professors in the School of Theology resigned over his expulsion.

The techniques that the students deployed were drawn from Lawson’s workshops. In 1958 and 1959, Lawson mobilized all that he knew about Christian pacifism, Gandhian nonviolence, and Methodist social ministry and blended them into an unprecedented curriculum that influenced the civil rights movement in Nashville and beyond.

Blending Christianity and interreligious sources, he did not present its philosophy and practice as a secular doctrine, but as the essence of religion itself. Core to nonviolence was mirroring God’s love for humankind and exhibiting it through concrete relationships of human solidarity and community. “Nonviolence,” Lawson taught, is the aggressive, forgiving, patient, long-suffering Christ-like and Christ-commanded love or good-will for all humankind even in the face of tension, fear, hatred, or demonic evil.” Moreover, “it is the readiness to absorb suffering with forgiveness and courage rather than to inflict suffering on others.”

Lawson divided his instruction into four modules: how nonviolence reacts, training for nonviolence, the virtues of nonviolence, and the methods of nonviolence. Practitioners prepared themselves by jettisoning anger, hostility and fear thus “minimizing the effect of an attack,” valuing love, courage, fearlessness, and forgiveness, and pursuing redemptive suffering which “releases unknown elements for good.” Preparation included meditation and prayer, study of the scriptures, practicing nonviolence through challenges to segregation in bus transportation and in other public facilities.The practice steps included fact-finding, negotiation, education of the community, and various methods of nonviolent direct action including sit-ins, boycotts, strikes, and civil disobedience. Lawson provided an extensive bibliography including relevant verses from the Bible, the Bhagavad Gita, and from the Chinese philosopher, Mo Ti and the Hebrew prophet, Isaiah.

The Nashville sit-ins and those led by students in other southern cities convinced Ella Baker of the SCLC to call a conference in April, 1960, at Shaw University in Raleigh, North Carolina. Out of this meeting emerged the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee.Lawson delivered an opening keynote address that helped to frame SNCC’s nonviolent trajectory.Later, Lawson summarized discussions and consensus that emerged out of the conference, and his synopsis received the approval of everyone there. Lawson’s overall comments said that “nonviolence as it grows from Judaic-Christian tradition seeks a social order of justice permeated by love.”

It was Lawson who delivered the keynote address and framed SNCC’s nonviolent orientation.

The whole group, perhaps 120 participants, all in the room, asked me to draft a statement. Eventually, three different drafts emerged. The Nashville group was cohesive. The extant draft was the third, influenced by the Nashville group, after two earlier conversations. (Interview with King, June 2014)

Lawson’s synopsis was approved by the Conference.

In a private email message Mary King told me:

He [James Lawson] was reading from the FOR booklist from a young age, but I don’t think that he was influenced on notions of Consensus by Quakers, because the connection was too abstract. Let me underscore that he says it was for him Methodist origins. (Private email, 15 April 2014)

In his interview with Mary King, Lawson confirmed that the origin of Consensus in SNCC was the Nashville Central Committee, confirming what Mary King had told me in April. As to the roots Consensus in Lawson’s own experience, he emphasized that:

It was the Methodist youth and student movements with which I had grown up, and this is how they made decisions. They knew the rules of parliamentary procedures, but they wanted to find a common mind. (Interview with King, June 2014)

The Methodist Church to this very day still mandates Majority decisions, but this would never have entailed children voting ‒ in general youngsters in these organizations were simply told what to do. The Black congregations had operated separately for more than a century, so there was some room for Lawson to develop a consensual model of collaboration in working with young people. It is also possible the Black congregations, like other Black Churches in America, drew on other traditions of decision making.

Andy Blunden

Attachment: James Lawson Biography.docx
Description: MS-Word 2007 document