James Lawson, Martin Luther King Jr. and non-violence

Frank Stoltze | Off-Ramp | 

Rev. James M. Lawson, Jr. and actor Jessie Williams from 'Lee Daniels' The Butler'

Rev. James M. Lawson, Jr. and
actor Jesse Williams from ‘Lee Daniels’ The Butler’

As the nation celebrated the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington this week, James Lawson could only smile. Lawson is the longtime preacher at Holman United Methodist Church in the West Adams district who worked alongside Dr. Martin Luther King for many years. In fact, he was one of the key architects of King’s non-violent tactics.

Lawson, who is portrayed briefly in The Butler teaching young civil rights activists, trained hundreds of people in non-violent tactics during the 1950’s and 60’s. He had studied satyagraha, Mahatma Ghandi’s principles of non-violent resistance, while working as a preacher in India.

He first learned of King on the front pages of a local newspaper in Nagpur, India, reporting on the 1955 bus boycott in Montgomery, Alabama. Lawson met his future friend a year later while studying at Oberlin College in Ohio.

“We had an instant sense of companionship and similarity of purpose,” he said. “We were both the same age — he was a Baptist preacher, me a Methodist preacher.”

Lawson said King asked for his help.  “As we talked, Martin urged me to come south immediately because of my experience and practice working in non-violence. So I moved in 1958.”

The idea of non-violence came to Lawson, 84, in the fourth grade. He describes an encounter with another child while running an errand for his mother in Massillon, Ohio, the small Midwestern town where he grew up.

“He hurled a racial slur at me from the open window of an automobile,” Lawson said. “I went over and slapped the child, and ran back home.”

Read more at Southern California Public Radio: James Lawson, Martin Luther King Jr. and non-violence.

Rev. Lawson is the Pastor Emeritus of Holman United Methodist Church,  he served as Senior Pastor from 1974-1999.