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One of the Civil Rights Movement’s most consequential leaders comes to Greensboro

Rev. Dr. James Lawson and Melvin “Skip” Alston, ICRCM co-founder and Guilford County Commissioner. Photo by Ivan Saul Cutler/Carolina Peacemaker.

The Rev. Dr. James Lawson closed out the International Civil Rights Center and Museum Speaker Series as the last speaker on February 22.

Seated at the F.W. Woolworth lunch counter in the museum, Lawson recounted that while the Greensboro sit-ins were a part of history, they did not originate in the Gate City.

Rev. Lawson visits ICRCM for speaker series. Photo by Ivan Saul Cutler/Carolina Peacemaker.
Documented sit-ins go as far back as 1942 in the cities of Los Angeles, Chicago and Washington D.C. In 1942 an interracial group of students in Chicago, formed the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) which pioneered the use of nonviolent direct action in America’s civil rights struggle. Influenced by Gandhi, in the 1940s CORE used sit-ins and other nonviolent direct actions to integrate Chicago restaurants and businesses.

Lawson explained that he first learned about sit-ins and nonviolent strategy from those movements.

“They desegregated restaurants in those places in ‘42 and ‘43. And that was a small movement because the Black community did not pick it up and run with it at the time,” he noted.

Lawson is recognized as one of the Civil Rights Movement’s most consequential leaders. He spent three years in India as a missionary and studied Gandhi’s strategy of nonviolence before returning to the United States to join the movement. He helped train many civil rights activists, including the Little Rock Nine, and organized campaigns that included the Freedom Riders and the Nashville lunch counter sit-ins.

He became the pastor of the Centenary United Methodist Church in Memphis in 1962 and invited Martin Luther King Jr., to Memphis during the 1968 sanitation workers’ strike. Lawson is also the 2022 Alston-Jones International Civil and Human Rights Award recipient, that is presented annually at the museum’s fundraising gala.

Known as one of King’s named chief strategists, Lawson said he believes that the country has moved away from the nonviolent teachings he and King worked to share with the world. He added that body cameras are not a good tactic to stopping police killings.

“The only security in which the human race has been able to make advancements is in the security of character. The human character. There’s no value in guns. Body cams are of little to no importance in an investigation. Police will say the footage is jumbled. Body cams are not a good tactic for stopping police killings,” he said.

Instead, nonviolent strategy embedded in love is what is needed, he suggested.

Lawson said he believes that his role as a civil rights activist is directly linked to his role a pastor.

“I’m a pastor and the issue of mistreatment of the neighbor is the critical issue in the bible, so you have no choice. If you have the call of God to be a pastor as I, and King did, then you are obligated to stop people from hating thy neighbor.”

Guilford College hosted Lawson for the evening speaker’s event, on campus in Dana Auditorium, where he spoke about his classic book, Revolutionary Nonviolence. The conversation was conducted by Guilford College President Kyle Farmbry.