On Losing “the Greatest Teacher of Nonviolence in America”

Rev. James Lawson was my teacher, mentor and friend. We must commit to honoring his legacy.

Kent Wong

Rev. James Lawson, who recently passed away, at a rally in Florida in support of immigrant rights. AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee

I had the privilege of teaching a course at UCLA on Nonviolence and Social Movements” with Rev. James Lawson, Jr. for more than 20 years. The course analyzed contemporary social movements that embrace the philosophy of nonviolence, and encouraged students to apply nonviolence in their own lives.

Thousands of students over those two decades have been motivated by the course to pursue paths of peace and justice. 

Rev. Lawson drew energy from teaching. He enjoyed engaging our students, challenging them, inspiring them to use their talents to be a force for change. He took a genuine interest in their hopes, aspirations and dreams. The students who benefited most from the class were those who tried to practice the philosophy of nonviolence in their own work and in their own lives.

Rev. Lawson’s life and legacy has advanced a “school-to-movement” pipeline that has inspired generations of leaders and transformed justice movements everywhere.

The class was yet another consistent engine of Rev. Lawson’s life and legacy, which has advanced a school-to-movement” pipeline that has inspired generations of leaders and transformed justice movements everywhere. From the 1960 Nashville sit-in movement to the 1968 Memphis Sanitation Workers Strike to the recent organizing among undocumented immigrant students at UCLA, the vision of Rev. Lawson and his teachings on nonviolence have been a source of unparalleled impact.

A little more than a year ago, on May 17, 2023, Rev. Lawson and I accompanied our students to a rally on UCLA’s campus to support job opportunities for undocumented immigrant students. When he rose to speak, he reminded the audience that on that very day in 1954, the historic Brown vs. Board of Education decision was announced by the U.S. Supreme Court, and yet seven decades later we are still contesting a separate and unequal educational system. 

Lawson, an iconic leader of the Civil Rights Movement who changed the course of U.S. history and made extraordinary contributions to advance the theory and practice of nonviolence, passed away on June 9. He was 95.

Lawson, an iconic leader of the Civil Rights Movement who changed the course of U.S. history and made extraordinary contributions to advance the theory and practice of nonviolence, passed away on June 9. He was 95.

I first worked closely with Rev. Lawson in the 1980s when I was staff attorney for the Service Employees International Union (SEIU). A network of young activists approached Rev. Lawson to learn from his vast experience helping shape the Civil Rights Movement and to see if we could apply those lessons to labor organizing in Los Angeles. He agreed to meet with us and challenged us to apply nonviolence as a living and breathing science — and as a way of life. He explained that during the course of our lives, the majority of social justice campaigns we will work on will not succeed the first time or perhaps for years, and yet we must persevere. We went on to meet for years on a monthly basis at the Holman United Methodist Church.

We called ourselves the Holman Group,” and our small network included California State Sen. María Elena Durazo, who was then a union organizer for the hotel workers, Los Angeles Mayor Karen Bass of the Free South Africa” committee, former Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa who was then an organizer for United Teachers Los Angeles and former Councilmember Gilbert Cedillo who was then a representative for SEIU. We would never have imagined the collective impact Holman Group members would have on social and political change in Los Angeles in the years to come.

Kent Wong, the former director of the UCLA Labor Center, embracing Rev. James Lawson during a ceremony honoring Lawson. Reed Hutchinson/UCLA

One of the goals of our Holman Group was to represent a continuation of Rev. Lawson’s work teaching and mentoring others around justice work, a process that he began decades before in the South.

Fittingly, this Saturday, July 6, 2024, there will be a memorial service for Rev. Lawson at Holman United Methodist Church on West Adams Boulevard in Los Angeles at 11 a.m. PST.

Dr. King referred to Rev. Lawson as “the greatest teacher of nonviolence in America.”

Rev. Lawson was a good friend and comrade of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and they first met when Rev. Lawson was a student at Oberlin College’s School of Theology. Both were second-generation ministers, and both were deeply immersed in the study and practice of nonviolence. When Dr. King learned that Rev. Lawson had recently returned from India where he studied the teachings of Mahatma Gandhi, he recruited Rev. Lawson to join him in the South to educate a new generation of civil rights activists about the philosophy and practice of nonviolence. 

Dr. King referred to Rev. Lawson as the greatest teacher of nonviolence in America.”

Sign up for our weekend newsletter
A weekly digest of our best coverage

Rev. Lawson launched the Nashville sit-in movement to challenge Jim Crow and segregation. The leaders of the Nashville sit-in movement, including the late Congressman John Lewis, Diane Nash, James Bevel, C.T. Vivian and Bernard Lafayette, went on to spread the gospel of nonviolence through Freedom Rides, Freedom Schools, and lunch-counter sit-in campaigns across the South. Rev. Lawson was expelled from Vanderbilt University Divinity School for his activism, yet decades later he was invited to return as a visiting professor, and Vanderbilt recently named an Institute in his honor. 

In 1968, Rev. Lawson helped lead the Memphis Sanitation Workers’ Strike, where the slogan I Am a Man” emerged as a national rallying cry for racial and economic justice. Rev. Lawson called on Dr. King to join him in Memphis to support the sanitation workers and it was there, on April 4, 1968, that Dr. King was assassinated. It is noteworthy that Dr. King drew a strong connection between racial justice and economic justice, and his final days were spent in solidarity with striking union workers.

Rev. James Lawson speaking to interns in the Dream Summer program. Courtesy of the UCLA Labor Center

Rev. Lawson was born in Pennsylvania in 1928 and raised in Ohio. He officially became a minister when he was a senior in high school in 1947. He was imprisoned for more than a year for refusing to serve with the U.S. military and later joined the Fellowship of Reconciliation and CORE (Congress of Racial Equality).

In 1974, Rev. Lawson moved to Los Angeles and became pastor of Holman United Methodist Church and I initially met him during campaigns for nuclear disarmament, opposing the U.S.-backed wars in Central America, and to end the apartheid regime in South Africa. Under his leadership for 25 years, Holman emerged as a center for social activism, linking local community issues for racial justice with global campaigns for peace. Rev. Lawson continued to hold nonviolence workshops for members of his congregation, as well as other labor and community leaders.

His work to advance nonviolence in the labor movement set the foundation for the emergence of Los Angeles as a national focal point for union transformation.

His work to advance nonviolence in the labor movement set the foundation for the emergence of Los Angeles as a national focal point for union transformation.

When María Elena Durazo was elected to lead the hotel workers union in Los Angeles in 1989, she called upon Rev. Lawson to teach union staff and leaders about nonviolence. Together, Rev. Lawson and María Elena began organizing and mobilizing a series of direct-action campaigns that inspired a historic breakthrough in Latino immigrant worker organizing. 

During a campaign to support hotel workers on USC’s campus, Rev. Lawson led a civil disobedience action on graduation day, where dozens of hotel workers and supporters were arrested. Before being taken away in police vans, he handed each one a diploma for justice,” acknowledging their act of conscience.

Rev. Lawson also worked with the famously transformative Justice for Janitors” campaign to successfully reorganize the janitorial industry and its Latino immigrant workforce. After the janitors’ organizing victory, Rev. Lawson assisted the union in expanding their membership of predominantly Latino janitors to successfully organize the predominantly Black security officer workforce. This represented a huge breakthrough in promoting Black and brown unity. 

Rev. Lawson also supported the launch of the campaign to organize home care workers in Los Angeles. This 12-year campaign led by Black women resulted in the single largest unionization victory in decades when 74,000 home care workers joined SEIU in Los Angeles in 1999. Today, more than 500,000 home care workers, the vast majority women of color, are represented by unions in California.

Rev. James Lawson teaching at UCLA. Courtesy of UCLA

Rev. Lawson was also an advisor and active supporter of the Los Angeles Black Worker Center, which has served as a national model for Black Workers Centers across the country. Black Worker Centers have been at the forefront of addressing the crises around jobs for Black workers.

He often spoke of the pernicious nature of what he termed plantation capitalism,” a form of capitalism in the United States that is grounded in the legacy of slavery and systemic racial inequality. Rev. Lawson understood the critical links between class and racial exploitation, and the necessity of building multi-racial unity among workers of all colors. 

He would teach the power of love over hate, the power of compassion over intolerance, and the power of nonviolence over violence. Rev. Lawson shared the vision of a beloved community” that his good friend Dr. King embraced throughout his life.

He would teach the power of love over hate, the power of compassion over intolerance, and the power of nonviolence over violence.

It was in 2002 that Rev. Lawson began to teach our UCLA course on nonviolence. We later published two path-breaking books, Nonviolence and Social Movements: The Teachings of Rev. James Lawson Jr. and Revolutionary Nonviolence: Organizing for Freedom, for the first time capturing in print Rev. Lawson’s teachings on the four steps of a nonviolent campaign” that he had taught for decades. 

In 2018, Rev. Lawson received the UCLA Medal, its highest honor. A year later, he was nominated by Gov. Gavin Newsom and inducted into the California Hall of Fame. In 2021, the UCLA Labor Center dedicated the UCLA James Lawson Jr. Worker Justice Center in Los Angeles, the first UCLA institution serving the needs of working class communities of color.

Durazo introduced a Senate Resolution last year, inspired by Rev. Lawson’s teachings, to support nonviolence education in California’s public schools, a first-in-the-nation effort that passed unanimously.

Rev. James Lawson speaks during ceremony at UCLA in his honor. Reed Hutchinson/UCLA

The UCLA Labor Center has also launched the Rev. James Lawson Jr./Dolores Huerta Nonviolence Project, which will engage California Community College and high school students in the study of nonviolence. The curriculum uses Rev. Lawson’s books, workshop materials, videos and his teachings on how to advance a nonviolent campaign. In the coming years, we will engage community college and high school teachers throughout California to use this curriculum to celebrate Martin Luther King, Jr. Day in January and Cesar Chavez Day in March. There could be no better way to celebrate legendary leaders who have embraced the philosophy of nonviolence throughout their lives.

Kent Wong, former director of the UCLA Labor Center, holds up a copy of Rev. Lawson's book "Revolutionary Nonviolence" at a ceremony honoring Lawson. Reed Hutchinson/UCLA

I will always be grateful for having Rev. Lawson as my teacher, my co-teacher, my mentor and my friend. Several years ago, I suffered from life-threatening endocarditis that required open heart surgery and a heart valve replacement. A week after my surgery, I was allowed to return home. Rev. Lawson insisted on visiting me, in spite of my protestations. He explained, I am a pastor. This is my work.”

Sign up for our weekend newsletter
A weekly digest of our best coverage

When he joined me for tea in my living room, his tone and message were somber. Rev. Lawson challenged me as he had many times during the course of our friendship. He told me that I had to reach into my inner being and come to terms with my purpose in life. He assured me that my time was not yet up, and that there was other important work I had to do. 

His words were powerful, and he helped me focus on my recovery. As always, he was right. I still had more work to do.

A highlight of my career and my life has been to have the honor to teach with Rev. Lawson, to publish books featuring his life and work, and to work side by side with him on numerous campaigns for economic and racial justice. Those of us who have had the privilege to learn from Rev. Lawson are better human beings as a result, and we will pledge to continue his lifelong work to create a beloved community. 

Kent Wong is the Director for Labor and Community Partnerships at the UCLA Labor Center, where he teaches courses in labor studies and ethnic studies.

Get 10 issues for $19.95

Subscribe to the print magazine.