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Why It's Time to Get to Know the Black Civil Rights Activist James Lawson: An Interview with Michael K. Honey

Love & Solidarity: A Preview from University Washington Tacoma on Vimeo.

No human being in the sight of God is illegal.  The fight for the civil rights of workers who come here from all over the world is the same as the Freedom Rides of 1961 and the continuing struggle for civil and human rights for all.  –  Reverend James Lawson

The proposed policies of President Donald J. Trump and a dominant Republican majority in Congress threaten to undermine Obamacare, education, the environment, labor and civil rights, and that translates into more suffering for minorities, workers, children, the poor, and other vulnerable people. These policies are forms of violence, according to renowned civil rights and labor activist Rev. James Lawson.

Rev. Lawson urges us to resist with nonviolence by joining together in what Dr. King called “the beloved community,” based on values of love and solidarity and a recognition that, as Dr. King said, “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”

Rev. Lawson (born 1928) has been committed to nonviolence in confronting injustice since childhood. He was ordained a minister by age 18 and earned a prison sentence for resisting the draft during the Korean War. After he completed his sentence he traveled to India to study Gandhian principles of nonviolence, satyagraha.

During the struggle for civil rights in the American South in the 1960’s Rev. Lawson mentored activists of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and the Fellowship of Reconciliation on nonviolent direct action. He also advised Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. He stood with Dr. King during his final campaign in 1968 in Memphis, Tennessee, in support of the Memphis Sanitation Workers’ Strike, a precursor of the Poor People’s Campaign for economic justice.

Rev. Lawson moved from the South to Los Angeles in 1974, and since then he has applied his nonviolent philosophy in campaigns for civil and labor rights and immigration reform.

Inspired by Rev. Lawson’s nonviolent philosophy and organizing expertise, University of Washington-Tacoma Professor Michael K. Honey directed and co-produced a film with award-winning filmmaker Errol Webber,  Love and Solidarity: Rev. James Lawson and Nonviolence in the Search for Workers Rights.

Professor Honey, a friend and colleague of Rev. Lawson, sees the film as an introduction to Rev. Lawson’s role in the history of labor and civil rights struggles as well as a tool to educate students and communities about organizing nonviolent actions for justice. 

Professor Honey, the Haley Professor of Humanities at the University of Washington-Tacoma, teaches labor, ethnic and gender studies and American history. His award-winning books of history include Sharecropper’s Troubadour: John L. Handcox, the Southern Tenant Farmers’ Union, and the African American Song Tradition (Introduction by Folk Singer Pete Seeger); Going Down Jericho Road: The Memphis Strike, Martin Luther King's Last CampaignBlack Workers Remember: An Oral History of Unionism, Segregation and the Freedom Struggle; and Southern Labor and Black Civil Rights: Organizing Memphis Workers

Professor Honey also worked as a civil rights organizer in the South 40 years ago. He is an accomplished folk musician and performed with the late Pete Seeger and other notable musicians on several occasions over the decades.

Professor Michael Honey

Professor Honey graciously responded to questions about Dr. Lawson and his film by email.

Robin Lindley: What sparked your interest in making your film on Rev. James Lawson and nonviolence?

Professor Michael Honey: I served as a labor advisor to the Fetzer Institute in Michigan. Its mission is to promote love and forgiveness. They look for exemplars who hold that up in the world and I suggested Rev. Lawson as an exemplar who has brought values of love and forgiveness into both the civil rights and labor movements through the application of the philosophy and practice of nonviolence.

Robin Lindley: How did you get to know Rev. Lawson?

Professor Michael Honey: I met him in 1970 when I was a civil liberties organizer based in Memphis, where Rev. Lawson pastored Centenary United Methodist Church. He was the minister who helped to lead support for the Memphis sanitation strikers in 1968. We worked together on the campaign to free Angela Davis from false charges in California and I organized a big rally on her behalf at his church.

Robin Lindley: What are a few things readers should know about Rev. Lawson?

Professor Michael Honey: Lawson had gone to prison as a young man for turning in his draft card in protest to war and conscription. He had spent three years as a missionary and studying nonviolence in India.

In 1957, Dr. King asked him to come South as an organizer for the nonviolent movement. Lawson was in the background teaching nonviolent methods during the civil rights movement, from the Nashville sit-ins to the freedom rides to the mass disruptions of the segregation system in Birmingham in 1963, and of course during the Memphis sanitation strike in which Dr. King lost his life.

The main thing to know about him is that he is a deeply religious person whose family history is rooted in the black experience going back to his ancestors’ escape from slavery before the Civil War.

His world view is all-inclusive, as was King’s. He follows the teachings of Jesus and Gandhi, as did King, which means he has a vision of a world without racism, poverty, and war. These are all forms of violence, and Lawson strives as a nonviolence advocate to bring into being a “beloved community” in which people treat each other with respect and dignity and work to end all forms of violence in favor of an economy and a politics of love.

Robin Lindley: Some people equate Gandhi with “passive resistance” but, for Rev. Lawson, nonviolence is not passive. How does Rev. Lawson see nonviolence as “active” in resisting oppression?

Professor Michael Honey: Rev. Lawson says that from an early age he was a militant protestor against all forms of violence, what he calls “cruelty systems.” These included capitalism, colonialism, racism, sexism, class oppression, and the like. His view is all inclusive.

As a militant, he never could identify with the term “passive” or “pacifism.” Rather, he followed King and Gandhi, who used the term “nonviolent resistance.” That term seems ideally suited to the times we are in with the Trump Administration. Don’t add to the violence in the world and use peaceful means to stop violence in all its forms, but be militant, be disruptive. Don’t let the powers that be have any rest as they try to tear up democracy and human rights and increase the suffering in the U.S. and around the world.

Robin Lindley: Rev. Lawson is particularly concerned about workers’ rights. How did the issues of workers become his focus?

Professor Michael Honey: Rev. Lawson as a Methodist minister has a biblical framework put forward by Jesus of supporting “the least of these,” the poor and injured people of the world. When the Methodist church recruited him to Holman United Methodist Church in Los Angeles, he put that philosophy to work on a great number of social issues, especially the labor movement.

He used nonviolence principles and strategies to support organizing Latino/a immigrants, Dream Act students, black security guards, and others. At a time when unions have been battered and bashed across the U.S., the Los Angeles labor movement has made a comeback from deindustrialization and has vigorously organized workers in the service economy. Our film shows how the strategy and methods of nonviolence helped that to happen.

Robin Lindley: What are some of Rev. Lawson’s important achievements as a teacher and an organizer of nonviolent campaigns to lift workers and others? He has said that our economy is only for “the wealth of the few” and has ignited nonviolent campaigns to challenge the rich and powerful, the oligarchs, the Chamber of Commerce.

Professor Michael Honey: In “Love and Solidarity,” Rev. Lawson points out that “there is an elephant in the room,” called economic inequality. It is his view that the rich and powerful have taken control of democracy and turned it into oligarchy; and that we the people have the power to change this through the application of the philosophy and practice of nonviolence. That includes practicing love in our personal relations and extending love through our political and social movements as well; to take in those who have been cast off and exploited; and to resist by every nonviolent method available to us the exploitation of our society and the people of the world by those he calls in the film, “the addicted people of power and wealth.” He does not dehumanize these people; he calls for us to “encounter” them, to “shake them up,” and to reverse the “policies of death” that have taken charge of our politics, our military machine, our mass incarceration machine, our police, our instrumentalities of the state.

He believes that people at the local level already implement “policies of life and love” every day, and that the violence of those currently in power does not represent the true spirit of the American people. Like King, he is a great advocate of hope in the face of what others might consider a hopeless situation. For Lawson, there is no hopeless situation.

Robin Lindley: You’ve done an extensive study of Rev. Lawson’s life and philosophy. What are some resources for learning more about Rev. Lawson?

Professor Michael Honey: One can learn a lot about Lawson’s world view by going online. You can find his speeches and sermons everywhere, including on the website for our film, loveandsolidarity.com. We also have a Facebook page. And Bullfrog Films has a wonderful webpage in support of this film and their other films.

Currently, the best way to get an understanding of Rev. Lawson’s life and philosophy is to get our 38-minute movie from Bullfrog Films. We have been showing it at universities, unions, and in communities all across the country. Another way to learn more is to go the UCLA Labor Center website and order a copy of their new book, “Nonviolence and Social Movements,” based on a course by that name taught by Rev. Lawson and Kent Wong, the Labor Center Director.

Eventually, we will have another book based on the life and teachings of James Lawson. In the meantime, I suggest people watch for my forthcoming book, Martin Luther King’s Unfinished Agenda, with W.W. Norton. We hope to have it available by the fifty-year commemoration of the Memphis strike and King’s last day, on April 4, 2018. I also extensively interviewed him and wrote about him in my book, Going Down Jericho Road: The Memphis Strike, Martin Luther King’s Last Campaign (2007). Lawson, like King, still has much to teach about how to bring about a better world.

Robin Lindley: Thank you Professor Honey for your insights and congratulations on your moving film, Love and Solidarity and your forthcoming book on Dr. King.