There was a time when his name was tied to the headlines. Now, you have to burrow through the history books to find it. Just as well. It was always the mission, never the fame that drove Rev. James Lawson. It’s why he was more than content to work behind the scenes with Martin Luther King, Jr. in the heyday of the Civil Rights Movement. From the 1950s on, James Lawson taught the principles and strategies of nonviolent civil resistance to hundreds of people at the request of Dr. King. Some of these people went on to lead the Nashville lunch-counter sit-ins in 1960, to form the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), and to complete the Freedom Rides at a time when the risk of violence nearly brought them to a halt. King went on to refer to Lawson as “the mind of the movement” and “the greatest teacher of nonviolence in America.”
Even so, addressing the Reverend Dr. James Lawson as a civil rights “legend” or “icon,” as I did when I interviewed him in October, leaves you feeling a little silly and superficial afterward, despite the attempt at deference. Lawson is too serious-minded for such flattery. He brushes it off and turns the conversation to the work—not only that which has been done but also that which remains.