Book Review: “Revolutionary Nonviolence”

A review of James M. Lawson Jr., with Michael K. Honey and Kent Wong. Revolutionary Nonviolence: Organizing for Freedom (Oakland: University of California Press, 2022)

by John M Repp

This book is a transcript of recent talks by Reverend James M. Lawson, Jr. with a foreword by Angela Davis, an introduction by Michael Honey and a brief biography of Lawson by Kent Wong. Lawson is 93 and still working for justice, now in Los Angeles. Lawson was the workshop trainer in nonviolence in the campaign to desegregate downtown Nashville in 1960. The main tactic used there was the sit-in at lunch counters in the downtown stores. Lawson tells us that he spent months training people in nonviolence before the actions. Some students who took part included Diane Nash, Bernard Lafayette, and John Lewis. At the time, Lawson was working for Fellowship of Reconciliation as southern secretary. Over 150 students were arrested in the Nashville campaign and Lawson was expelled from Vanderbilt University where he was enrolled as a divinity student.

Lawson had been invited to come and participate in the growing freedom movement, we call the “Civil Rights” movement, whose spokesman was Martin Luther King, Jr. He met King in February 1957 at a meeting of the two at Oberlin College, set up by Harvey Cox who knew Lawson and MLK had similar interests.

Lawson had several experiences while very young that led him to nonviolence. When he was only four and then later when he was in the seventh grade, a student used a racial epithet in front of him and Lawson struck the offender each time. The second time, he told his mother and she reassured him that he was a good person but then said to him “There must be a better way.” Lawson recounts that moment as one “where the world stood still”.

Lawson was coming of age during the Korean war. He sent back his draft cards. In 1950, during the fall of his senior year in college, the FBI arrested and sent him to a minimum-security prison full of conscientious objectors and moonshiners. He formed a study group there with some of the white C.O.’s. That got him labeled as a troublemaker, and he was transferred to another prison. Lawson considered his time at both facilities as a time of learning. After his release, he traveled to India to learn more about nonviolence. Gandhi was dead by then, but Lawson got to know some of Gandhi’s lieutenants, and he studied writings not available in the U.S. He realized that the plight of Blacks in America was but one example of the global oppression of nonwhite people. He confirmed that idea with a six-week tour in Africa, then experiencing anticolonial liberation movements.

As a FOR secretary, Lawson visited different places in the South. He and MLK agreed that the success of the Birmingham, Alabama bus boycott in 1958 must not be a one-of-a-kind event. Before he landed in Nashville where he had been accepted to Vanderbilt, Lawson talked to some of the Little Rock Nine who integrated Little Rock Central High School in Arkansas. He asked one student what her parents and the NAACP told her about how to behave. She said: “We were told not to fight back.” She remembered that one boy was very abusive in his language toward her. Several boys were wrapping steel balls in paper and throwing them at the black students, a practice called “bombing.” One day a “bomb” was thrown at her which missed and hit the wall. Taking a suggestion that Lawson had made earlier to heart, trembling, the girl picked up the “bomb” and walked over to the boy and put it back on his desk. His complexion turned bright red. The next morning when they came back to school, the boy greeted her with a smile and said “Good Morning, Carlotta.”  

Tennessee appeared to be less racist than the deep South, but segregation was just as much a way of life there and most Blacks lived below the poverty line. The goal of integrating downtown Nashville and the idea of a sit-in at lunch counters came from the women who were in Lawson’s workshops. Lawson tells us that nonviolent direct action is difficult, demanding, and requires sacrifice. In many cases, the activists must be prepared to go to jail and even sacrifice their life. It has been the most powerful force in human history and the “best kept secret” in human history. (p.35)

Despite the interesting stories from the past, the thrust of this book is the future. He mentions that millions of people marched in the streets after George Floyd was murdered, in 2400 locations, and in 7300 demonstrations. (p.20), mostly marches. This was just in the United States. There was more around the world.

We are witnessing the beginnings of a 21st century movement that will protect democracy politically and expand it into the economy and the culture. There are 198 methods for nonviolent action. “The march may be the weakest tactic” in the whole arsenal of methods. (p.70) We must overcome the notion that the United States is “exceptional”, a most dangerous idea. And we cannot move against the owners and oligarchs as individuals but must move against the system he calls “plantation capitalism”.

It may take a while to find the best strategy and tactics, because a “direct assault” will not bring about major social change (p. 95). “You have to do the truth part first.” (p.97) is Lawson’s way of saying the teaching and learning of nonviolence with a deep analysis of the problem, and then the offer to negotiate with authorities before an action is taken, must not be slighted. He also thinks the idea of reparations for past harms must be considered. “In every area of the law”, he points out, if there has been harm, remedies are required. (p.97).

This man is truly a nonviolent revolutionary and his book is worthy of close study.

Note that co-author Michael Honey will be the keynote speaker for WWFOR’s April 30, 2022, Spring Assembly, click here for more information.