Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Serving his country: James Lawson in The Butler

From August 17-24, 2013, for eight solid days and evenings, approximately 55 of us gathered in Nashville, Tennessee at the premier James Lawson Institute, an educational forum on strategic nonviolence inspired by and guided by the man who was not only one of the leading intellects of the Civil Rights movement, but its best and foremost trainer in tactical nonviolence.
James Lawson--who, by the way, long resisted all efforts to name this institute for him and only ultimately capitulated to honor the wishes of the funding and organizing group--was with us every day and evening. He delivered two major speeches and offered a great deal of context and strategic thought throughout the eight day institute. He is one of the most humble, brilliant, lovable, thoughtful, humorous, insightful educators I've ever known--and a man of his word and of his conscience, starting for him when, at age 22 (born in 1928), with a ministerial deferment, he chose rather to resist conscription during the Korean War and served more than a year in prison.

Near the end of the institute, Rev Lawson mentioned the film The Butler, in which Jesse Williams plays him. Later that evening, I found out who this actor was (I'm not very TV-literate, and obviously not celebrity-conscious). The next morning at breakfast, as Rev Lawson was going through the cafeteria line, I mentioned that the actor who played him was voted one of the 100 sexiest men alive. The Rev laughed so hard he almost dropped his tray.

Rev Lawson will be 85 next month. He should be in his rocking chair, if not a nursing home, by our cultural expectations. He has long outlived his statistical life for African American males--amongst those with the shortest lifespan in the US. Instead, he is vital, engaged, on his feet when he has something to offer, and knew everyone's name almost immediately, a skill that I envy. Indeed, I am going to have to regretfully stop using my advancing age (soon to be 63) as an excuse for my failings, having been around a man old enough to be my father for this intense eight days and watching him outperform many who are a quarter his age.

So last night I had to see The Butler. It is a complex set of interconnected stories of racist violence, racist culture, and racial advancement. Forest Whitaker--the butler--is the outstanding lead, Oprah Winfrey is perfect as his evolving wife, and the entire cast is compelling--how can we not go see a film in which Nancy Reagan is played by Jane Fonda and John Cusak is Richard Nixon? Impossibly unavoidable. But not until I watched Jesse Williams play James Lawson right after spending a week with the Reverend did I really internalize serious admiration for consummate acting skill. Williams sticks it. He gets Lawson's expressions, mannerisms, intensity, and loving commitment to both spirituality and effective, rigorous training. Williams has watched the same archival footage I have, and spent time perfecting his character. I have never in my life said an acting performance made me cry. This one did. Jesse Williams brought me to tears when he brought the real spirit of the Reverend James Lawson to a Hollywood film--a film now being attacked by the rightwing (for its accuracy, which makes it such a dangerous bit of entertainment).

Watch We Were Warriors, the film segment about Nashville and the Sit-In Kids in the 2000 York Zimmerman documentary A Force More Powerful. That 30 minute segment features archival footage and current interviews with Rev James Lawson. Then watch The Butler. Somewhere in there read David Halberstam's The Children. And if you can, go hear the Rev talk. He lives in Los Angeles and is still active. His life has been an astonishing set of commitments and accomplishments, underscored by herculean persistence. I was so honored that I was chosen to be one of the founding faculty of this excellent institute and I'm sure all that fed into my emotional state watching Lawson, as depicted by Williams, prepare innocent college kids for the abuse they would take when they merely politely sat at a lunch counter in Nashville and asked to be served.

Why teach them to take it without complaint or defensive response? Why educate, train, and drill them in the psychological skill set it takes to show true superior nonviolent discipline? Rev Lawson--who was just returning to the US in 1959 after studying Gandhian nonviolence in India for three years--knew that in every campaign for justice the challengers would get what I call The Test. They would be attacked. If they responded with violence, or even whining, their image would provide justification for further violence and would stop attracting many new participants. Lawson prepared these young people and they rose to it. Images were so clearly contrasted; dignified and courageous black (and some white) young students taking physical and verbal abuse from snarling, hateful, foaming, ignorant racists. The Test provided the image that galvanized the country, again and again, generating enormous sympathy and Civil Rights gains, one campaign after the next. Rev Lawson is the historic figure who gave them that edge, that model of training, that technique that turned philosophical nonviolence to strategic nonviolence. His model was replicated and disseminated.

So seeing that training in a Hollywood movie, when so little of it happens any longer, made me cry. I was really crying for the loss of advantage for Occupy, for Arab Spring, for any movement that struggles less successfully with The Test, even though the knowledge is right there for them. "Oh, well, we know all that. We got nonviolence training. We have evolved. We are all about ruckus now."

Uh-huh. The Lawson model won and won and won. It wore down its participants, it's true, and some degenerated into armed defense--the ultimate loser in the US, also well depicted in The Butler. Of course, romantic notions of violent revolution are sexy and mythologically appealing, even when the track record sucks. So we need a Lawson Institute every year and more of them to proliferate.

From one who learned nonviolence from Marv Davidov, an old Minnesota radical who learned it directly from the workshops formed by Lawson in the South in the Civil Rights years, I am so grateful for the wisdom and patience of the Rev James Lawson, an American hero.


Alan Wieder said...

What good surprise this morning. Hope people walk with you this afternoon. Sometimes, though, being the sole walker brings deeper conversation. I found that at the deKlerk placard demonstration -- 2 for a while but then only me. Do you remember -- we talked.

Kelly said...

Great tribute to amazing work, and a true hero. I wish I would have known about the training, I would have applied to it. We are going to see The Butler later this week, now I'm even more excited to see it. We need more focus on these important, successful efforts, like the movie and this post.

Tom H. Hastings said...

Yes, Alan. That evening, listening to DeKlerk, I felt sick. His racism and subservience to the war system seems to be unquestioned by a public who is wowed by his undeserved Nobel. It was like listening to LBJ intoning "We shall overcome." Erk.

Dominic Bellone said...

This is a great article and I'm pleased to see ICNC linked to it. Too often in studying foreign civil resistance movements and discussions regarding problems with democracy overseas, our "best and brightest" forget that we had/have those problems right in our own backyard. I was moved by The Butler too and hope more Americans see it.

Tom H. Hastings said...

Thanks, Dominic and Kelly. Oh yes we do have deep structural violence here in the US and direct physical violence as well, all requiring nonviolent response if we only have the education, training, and commitment to get it done.

Timeathea Walker said...

Amazing article!