James M. Lawson Jr.

Tufts President Anthony P. Monaco awarded James M. Lawson Jr. an honorary degree during the University's 158th Commencement ceremonies on Sunday, May 18, 2014.

Photo by Alonso Nichols/Tufts University

As a leader in the Civil Rights movement, you helped this country learn to live up to its ideals. Putting into practice the philosophy you learned from Gandhi himself, you worked with your friend Martin Luther King, Jr., to develop effective nonviolent approaches to challenge racism and segregation. In the process, your beliefs and actions changed the world by spurring political and social change. You recruited and trained the hundreds of students who sat at segregated lunch counters in Nashville in 1960. Their passive resistance became the model for future marches and demonstrations in the quest for racial equality. You taught and joined the Freedom Riders, who traveled in buses to protest segregation in station waiting rooms.  Your teachings gave them the courage to persevere even when attacked, refusing to confront violence with violence. In the fifty years since the Civil Rights Act was signed into law, you have continued to teach the next generations of students and community members about the universal importance of civil and human rights. For advancing the cause of civil rights and showing us how we can strive for higher values, Tufts honors you today with an honorary Doctor of Public Service degree.

When he was training students and community members in Nashville in the ways of nonviolent protest in the late 1950s, James M. Lawson Jr. told them this: “It has much more meaning to the attacker if, as he strikes you in the cheek, you’re looking him in the eye.” Many of his pupils became well-known civil rights activists, including John Lewis, Diane Nash, and Bernard Lafayette.

Lawson had come to Tennessee at the urging of Martin Luther King Jr., to teach the philosophy of nonviolence that both men believed was crucial to the success of the growing desegregation movement. He also enrolled as a divinity student at Vanderbilt University.

From February through May of 1960, Lawson and several hundred local activists staged lunch counter sit-ins at segregated restaurants and stores across Nashville. Protesters, mostly students like Lawson, were beaten and verbally abused. And although they did not retaliate, more than 150 of them were arrested.

The nonviolent Nashville protests became a model for ensuing civil rights demonstrations and marches that King and Lawson organized with others across the South. King called him “the leading nonviolence theorist in the world.”

Lawson was expelled from Vanderbilt for his involvement with the sit-ins, but this was not the first time he had experienced the consequences of acting on his beliefs. In 1951, he resisted the draft as a conscientious objector and served fourteen months in prison. After his release, he did missionary work for the Methodist Church in India, where he studied Gandhi’s use of nonviolence to achieve social and political change.

In the 1968 speech ‘‘I’ve Been to the Mountaintop,’’ which King delivered in Memphis the day before he was assassinated, he spoke of Lawson as one of the ‘‘noble men’’ who had influenced the black freedom struggle: ‘‘He’s been going to jail for struggling; he’s been kicked out of Vanderbilt University for this struggling, but he’s still going on, fighting for the rights of his people.’’

Lawson led workshops on nonviolent protest for the Fellowship of Reconciliation from 1957 to 1969, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee from 1960 to 1964, and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) from 1960 to 1967. Earlier, he participated in the third wave of the 1961 Freedom Rides, the Birmingham Campaign of 1963, and the Mississippi Freedom Summer of 1964.

His work continued after King’s death. He became a board member of SCLC in 1973, and served as president of the Los Angeles chapter from 1979 to 1993.

Lawson, who earned an A.B. from Baldwin-Wallace College and a Bachelor of Sacred Theology degree from Boston University, served as pastor of Holman United Methodist Church in Los Angeles from 1974 until his retirement in 1999.

In 1996, he returned to Vanderbilt to receive the Vanderbilt Divinity School’s first Distinguished Alumnus Award—and an apology for his expulsion in 1960. From 2006 to 2009 he taught there as a distinguished visiting professor, and in 2007, the James M. Lawson Jr. Chair at Vanderbilt was established in his honor. Lawson has also taught at Harvard University, Claremont School of Theology, and Chapman University, and is currently teaching at University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) as well as California State University, Northridge.

Today, he continues to believe that the nonviolent approach is the only one that can truly transform society. Talking about the Nashville sit-ins more than fifty years later, Lawson recently told a class at Vanderbilt:

 “We saw a wrong, and with our bodies we went into the situation to correct it. Could that have been done with guns or with billy sticks? No. The issue is not fear; the issue is if you let fear govern your values.”

Tufts will award Lawson an honorary Doctor of Public Service degree.