Monday, June 21, 2010
A strong moral oak in our human ecology
(James Lawson then and now)
In late 1959, as most of the United States snoozed, politically, safe and secure in the knowledge that we represent the creator of modern democracy and the pinnacle of freedom and human rights on Earth, James Lawson began an insurrection. Although many in monochromatic America could not conceive of anyone challenging the rule of the majority as anything other than a dupe of the commies, James Lawson was training young people in the art of nonviolent combat so they could, in fact, strengthen our democracy.
Democracy is more than two cats and a mouse deciding what's for lunch.
And so Lawson, a young minister from Pennsylvania who had studied and taught for three years in India, began to train young black and white students in Gandhian nonviolence in Nashville, Tennessee. Jim Crow segregation had been legalized in the South beginning with the Supreme Court decision Plessy v Ferguson in 1896, which had lasted until nonviolent civil resistance by Rosa Parks began the process that resulted in Brown v Board of Education in 1954.
"December 6, 1955, is the day I heard about the Montgomery bus boycott," said Lawson in an opening speech to the Fletcher Summer Institute 20 June 2010. "I was in India and it was front page news. It gave hope to millions around the world." It was civil society rising up to gain human rights and that struggle became Lawson's and he came home to help lead it. "The bus boycott lasted 381 days and it did not begin with the use of the word nonviolent," said Lawson. Rather, it was a natural upwelling of the longing for justice by the most powerful and most legitimate means at hand. Only gradually did the movement acquire the Gandhian theories of mass action, stamping civil society struggle with its own improvements and adaptations.
"I didn't learn to sit-in from studying Gandhi," said Lawson. "That had been used by CORE and others, and we decided to start with that in Nashville." The young Congress of Racial Equality had used sit-ins in restaurants in Chicago and elsewhere beginning the late 1940s, but when Lawson decided to apply that technique in Nashville, he took another element from Gandhian struggle, from the salt plant campaign, when waves of satyagrahis came to the gates and were beaten down, showing the world the brutal injustice of British rule in India.
"So when we did our sit-ins," said Lawson, "we had 600 trained to engage and they did that in waves, like the salt manufacturing challenge in India."
Taking the best from one campaign, stitching it together with the best from another campaign, and framing it to fit perfectly into the self-image that Americans had created of themselves in that day was a public policy stroke of pure genius that proved itself victorious quite quickly. The first Nashville sit-in was in February 1960 and by April the mayor of Nashville, Ben West, had told the irresistable resisters that they were right and that Nashville should and would desegregate.
"It was scientific," said Lawson.
Indeed it was. And of course he was keying off of the subtitle to Mohandas K. Gandhi's autobiography, which was The Story of My Experiments with Truth. Humankind at its best operates just like this. Put together pieces of the puzzle in new ways, create something new out of disparate components and study the results.
We are still learning from James Lawson and I was so privileged to shake his hand and join a standing ovation when he finished. It was so fitting when Jack DuVall, President of the International Center on Nonviolent Conflict, announced the new James Lawson Award for Nonviolent Achievement, which will be given annually beginning 2011.
I was nine years old when Lawson started his Nashville experiments with truth and I'm an oldster now. Lawson still stands like a strong oak in our human ecology. I pay great tribute to him for helping America to live up to her ideals and I offer his model to our nation now as a curative for the national need to be strong yet civil, as we continue to engage our own democracy and work to make it better. Lawson still shows us the path forward.