Civil rights

Nonviolence explained: A civil rights veteran preaches a ‘silent no’.

In advising students at Little Rock Nine High School who desegregated the all-white Central High School in 1957, the Reverend James M. Lawson Jr. says he prescribed a ‘way to deal with violence’ that creates transformation personal and social. . The Methodist minister, whose theories and strategies of nonviolence were used in the civil rights struggles of the 1950s and 1960s, calls it “soul force”.

Considered the architect of the civil rights movement‘s nonviolent strategies, Lawson suggested that when white students threw projectiles at black students in class, they took a deep breath and carried the “bomb” back to the student who threw it. had launched. A girl, Carlotta Walls, he said, told him she had done just that, and the boy “took on all kinds of complexions and couldn’t speak. But the next morning when she walked into that class, this boy said, with a big smile, ‘Hello, Carlotta.’ »

In an extensive interview about his new book – “Revolutionary Nonviolence: Organizing for Freedom”, a collection of his talks and dialogues – he told The Monitor that most changes in human history are not brought about by violence, but by “changes of the mind [and] spirit. »

Why we wrote this

The Reverend James M. Lawson Jr. was one of the architects of the principles and practices of nonviolence used in the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s. His new book on “revolutionary nonviolence” offers a way to think about meeting today’s challenges.

Rev. James M. Lawson Jr. is a Methodist minister whose theories and strategies of nonviolence were used in the civil rights struggles of the 1950s and 1960s. His new book – “Revolutionary Nonviolence: Organizing for Freedom” , a collection of his talks and dialogues – is a “how to” guide for the next generation.

In a wide-ranging conversation, edited for length and clarity, Mr. Lawson discussed the war in Ukraine; an FBI investigation into dozens of bomb threats against historically black colleges and universities this year; last year’s January 6 attack on the United States Capitol; and lynching, which becomes a federal hate crime today when President Biden signs the Anti-lynching law Emmett Till in the law. He told the Monitor that most of the changes in history are not due to violence, but to “changes of mind”. [and] spirit. »

When you speak of “revolutionary non-violence”, what do you mean by revolutionary?

Why we wrote this

The Reverend James M. Lawson Jr. was one of the architects of the principles and practices of nonviolence used in the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s. His new book on “revolutionary nonviolence” offers a way to think about meeting today’s challenges.

Old concepts in Western philosophy and politics that emphasize violence as the key to revolution miss a major discussion. Most of the major shifts in the human journey have been mind shifts, spirit shifts, intellectual discoveries, discoveries of where we are in the universe. The greatest illustration of what I’m talking about is the Rosa Parks-Martin Luther King campaign of the civil rights movement, between 1953 and 1973. We didn’t shoot anyone. We did not take up arms. Rather, we armed ourselves with love of God, love of ourselves, and love of others, and insisted that enmity could be overcome.

With dozens of bomb threats at HBCUs this year, how to counter this insidious intimidation?

We had the same kind of insidious intimidation in the 50s, 60s, 70s and 80s. We also had the bombings – the overt violence, but also white mobs authorized by the police to try to intimidate our silent sit-ins or our poster marches. What you have described is an integral part of the history of our country.

Courtesy of National SCLC

Reverend James Lawson Jr. leads a workshop on nonviolence in Nashville in 1960. His students would become key figures in the American civil rights movement of the 1960s.

So in this story, is the struggle for civil rights in the United States now at a higher or lower stage?

We are at a higher stage and at a more confusing stage. Racism was not spoken of on public stages in the 1940s, 50s and 60s. The lynching was reported by the black press, but the white press largely shunned it. I started reading the New York Times and the Christian Science Monitor when I was a high school student in the early 1940s. None of your articles really helped me with the issues of lynching and segregation. The black press did this much better.

January 6 may be a new level of violence that we have never experienced as a nation. You can’t say it was a legitimate protest because it wasn’t peaceful. Throughout the country there should be careful study of the Declaration of Independence. It is a very clear spiritual, moral and political statement of who we human beings are. When is this taught so that an audience emerges in our country that will not threaten people or threaten bombings or do January 6th business like [a] form of political, social, human discourse in the United States?

How do you talk to children about non-violence?

The Little Rock Nine is the best illustration of this. I asked them how their parents and the NAACP had asked them to behave. And they said, “We were told not to fight back. So I said, “What the NAACP and your parents meant was not to retaliate, but not to retaliate like the hostility you receive. You are already fighting back with your character and with your courage to walk through the halls of Central High School with often persistent horseplay and bullying.

I asked them, “What is the worst thing that can happen to you?

One of the girls said to me, “The bombardment! A boy would take a stone or a steel ball, wrap it in paper and throw it at them.

So I asked, “Is it possible you could stand still and hold your breath, then pick up the bomb off the ground and bring it back to the person you know who threw it?”

And that is precisely what some girls did in their resistance.

What has this resistance achieved?

One boy was stubbornly unbearable with his language. Carlotta Walls told me that [his] “bomb” hit the wall on the side of the room and fell, and she says she was shaking. And she caught her breath. She picked it up and brought it back to that boy’s office. She said he turned all kinds of complexions and couldn’t speak. But the next morning, when she walked into that class, that boy said, with a big smile, “Hello, Carlotta.”

There are many stories like that. You can discern that there is a way of acting that helps personal and social transformation, and that is what I call nonviolence or fortitude.

In the book, you urge to “resist the venom of our society with a discreet ‘no'”. What about Ukraine?

I have no doubt that in this setting of Ukraine, all kinds of people are more loyal to the power of their lives than to violence. Most ordinary people in the world do not support power struggles that hurt and maim others. It is usually the job of kings and principalities, power brokers who have not yet recognized alternative ways of using power.