A Member of the Non-Violent Movement Speaks



       A few days ago, some friends invited Barbara and myself to a Sunday service in St Andrews United Church in midtown Toronto and for a good reason: the preacher was a close colleague of the great and famous man I interviewed back in 1962: the late Martin Luther King. The minister, now elderly but still active, is both a theological intellectual and a friendly man. His name: James Lawson. Obviously he lives in the US, but he was invited to preach in the beautiful sanctuary of St. Andrews United Church on Bloor Street on the edge of the city’s downtown.

    When Dr. Lawson stood at the pulpit, he was both poised and practiced. It was basically clear that he was a socialist, but a socialist in a dignified and professional style and manner. As I listened I also sensed the past that formed him: he is 90 years old, and clearly, he was a leader in the American Civil Rights Movement throughout the sixties and seventies. He’s a lifelong Christian whose father was a minster and held the same perception that James had last Sunday: committed to non-violence and other aspects that were the heart of his son’s ethic. In the reality of Dr. Lawson’s mature years and being Martin Luther King’s associate, Lawson described Martin Luther King as “the greatest teacher of non-violence in America.” A civil rights leader named Diane Nash, once described Lawson by saying: “I think that he more than anyone else is why the Civil Rights Movement… was non-violent.”

      I was grateful when the church’s minister, Rev. Neil Young, took me to a space where I could interview Lawson in quiet privacy. He’s a prudent and perhaps modest man hence a soft spoken person. I had a reasonable time for the interview and asked him questions that were in part theological and also of his methods of dealing with the hardship given African Americans by southern white people. I soon understood that Dr. Lawson had the perspective that common citizenry had. Why? My view is that he, Martin Luther King, held the opinion that the upper white people had the major control that left “other- than-white” men and women, shunted aside and kept them that way in order to dismiss the black citizenry in favor of the white people on their way to the top while the black citizens were the servants – if they did as they were told!  Unfortunately for such people, the near and far futures were not in favor of the white collared.

    By 1959, the Civil Rights Movement, was showing its strength, young and old quietly giving support, and all things were underway. He went to Tennessee and studied at the theological branch of Vanderbilt University. Ever altruistic, he was soon helping students in various ways to various achievements, including such surprises as actors in the theatre, establishing a Freedom Democratic Party, The 1963 Birmingham Children’s Crusade and in time, the 1966 Chicago Open Housing movement and the anti-Vietnam war movement. These were some favorable aspects of his attitude, but it was in 1962, when Lawson became minister of The Centenary Methodist Church, located in Memphis that he was firm enough to also co-found a union.  In time, he reached out to bring his great friend Dr. King, to speak in Memphis. Yes, sad to say, it turned out to be the place and time where King delivered his moving and permanently famous speech called “The Mountaintop”.  Sadly the great sermon, was also a dreadful time and then a long heart breaking period in the lives of many to this very day.

        In our conversation, it was clear that as a Methodist minister he still holds to his altruistic convictions that a minister has the right to stand firm on his or her convictions of faith. My sense is that he regards faith as the foundation of life. His belief and practice of non-violence is a both admirable and questionable. As a person who lost a close relative in one of the World Wars, I am not able to reject  military men, for reasons I needn’t explain, as I remember the day long, long ago, when the telegram came to our home and the details of that day are engraved on my memory still helped by my uncle’s portrait above my desk.  Hitler, a psychopath, would of course, destroy the world, but there are philosophers and other academics, who take the view that the best path to peace and protection from war, is to engage in dialogue, if both sides agree. Yes, that’s asking a lot. As Douglas MacArthur put it in his day: “The soldier above all others pray for peace, for it is the soldier who must suffer and endure the deepest scars of war..,,”

       As the interview went on I asked a question which, in today’s culture, gives me deep concern: “What is the main cause and harm to society from the growth of secularism?”  He paused but briefly and gave me an insightful reply: “I’m not sure it’s the growth of secularism as much as it is the failure of Christianity. To be relevant. To be faithful. And to help people think through the technologies and sciences and the forces that are so powerful… So I take a slightly different view of what you tell me of secularism. I’m sure that as a church we’ve made some serious errors in the way we’ve operated.  I know some of this. I thought they were errors when they happened in the 1960s, when the church took positions and stands and budgets and what not. I feel it’s more on our side than on the growth of secularists’ side. My final word on that is that people have to have insight — an internal guidance to live well. Spiritually, heart, soul, mind, strength. We have to understand life to fulfill life.”  




  (The second portion of the interview with Dr. Lawson will follow.)  

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