James Lawson Continued



    Dr. James Lawson, Martin Luther King’s closest ally, is a highly gifted intellectual as well as a very respected and busy Methodist Minister. He taught many American Christian students who joined the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s. Dr. Lawson endured many political setbacks and much abusive treatment by the police of the 1960s. In the 1950’s he served 14 months in jail for his anti-war stance.

       I had the privilege to be the rare Canadian interviewer when many years ago, Dr. King came to speak at Holy Blossom Temple; it was in 1962.  On November 4th this year Barbara and I were invited to meet and interview Dr. Lawson and did so when Dr. Lawson concluded his sermon at Toronto’s St Andrew’s United Church on Bloor Street.

Here are some quotes from the interview:


       “In my view, our society is pretending we have been exceptional. We aren’t. Look at the treatment of the Indians. In my view there’s a lot of negative attitudes: structured violence, bad wages, there’s physical violence and even lynching. Moreover, all this has consequences we haven’t even examined for ourselves. So, in my mind the dastardly killing of eleven people of the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh was a reflection of those people in society who still think violence is the way to respond for what you think is needed. Moreover, their propensity is to be organized not by the spirit, but by violence, It’s simply part of our failure to see what is happening in society. In the US we just do not understand that we have a culture in which one of the major elements is violence.”

     As interviewer I was a bit shocked and asked if this attitude will wane in time. Lawson replied: “Not really. It will continue. If we were to have campaigns of non-violence in the 21st century this would be helpful. At the moment we have no such leadership. The FBI reports we have at least one violent killing a week…”

     He’s asked about the current wellbeing of people of color. His reply: “Work situations are better now for women and for people of color. There is more work. The other side of the coin is that we have an economic force in the US that has caused wages to be stagnant, causing inequality. It increases the number of working families who live in poverty.  The powers that be in the US have failed to see this coming.”

     I asked him for his opinion on the leadership in Washington. He drew his breath and replied: “Washington? It’s a disaster right across the board. Congress does nothing at all on the issues that could reach and help the people. Wages have not advanced since the 1970s. New demands for wealth have smothered the advances we were making. Chamber of Commerce behavior since the 1970s stopped the advance.”

          We then inevitably turned to the current American President, Donald Trump, expecting the inevitable assessment: “I had hopes that such a President would not be elected. Other rascals like that have run and been defeated. It was disastrous for society, far worse than the media or Canadian citizens may realize.”

       As time passed I asked: “Given the fact that you are a clergyman, as I am, and a Methodist minister with a lengthy background, what do you say as to the life of the church in its various aspects.” His basic reply was as follows: “Well… Decline in membership, loss of membership in Protestantism Catholicism and Judaism. Some of the ideas that drift here and there, are not quite rational: two years ago, 67 percent of the US people believed that the earth and creation happened 4 or 6 thousands years ago. The earth flat!” He shook his head and said, “Astonishing! But that tells us that many of our institutions have failed to address our human needs. Moreover I feel that Christian nationalism, Christian fundamentalism, the so-called Evangelical movement have been disastrous for the church. They are partly responsible for the loss of membership across the church.” Southern Baptists are still the largest protestant denomination in the US. United Methodists are second. In general, I’m told, membership is down from 16 million to 10 or 11 million. I’d say this: We the people are going to survive this and then we’re going to move back up again… That’s how I see it.”

    Dr. Lawson – he’s now 90 – was the most insightful of the advisors to Martin Luther King so, as the interview was closing, I asked Dr. Lawson how dreadful he felt about the murder of his great friend. “Well,” he sighed, “we were an emerging movement and Dr. King was the icon. His dreadful death radically set us all back….”


        I am to speak of Dr. King, in part on the interview I had with Dr. King him prior to his lecture at the Temple back in 1962. The event is to take place on December 10th.  I am thought to be the only Canadian journalist who had the opportunity of interviewing Martin Luther King, a gesture that was created and offered by my friend, the late Rabbi Gunther Plaut.


        To read my past blogs, see www.kennethbagnell.com.