Jan. 9, 2003
Vol. 22 No. 7

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    MLK Day Commemoration: Civil rights activist Lawson to present keynote address

    By Josh Schonwald
    News Office

    The Rev. James Lawson meets with students at a talk in the Divinity School in 2000, which was his first campus visit. Lawson was attending a series here on religion and violence.
    The man who mentored Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s Southern Christian Leadership Council on the techniques of nonviolent protest will give the keynote address at the University’s commemoration of Martin Luther King Jr. Day Monday, Jan. 20.

    The Rev. James Lawson Jr., director of Non-Violent Education in the Southern Christian Leadership Council during the early 1960s and the architect of the Freedom Rider protests that fought Jim Crow laws throughout the Deep South, will discuss King’s legacy during the commemoration that begins at noon in Rockefeller Memorial Chapel.

    “We’re thrilled to have Rev. Lawson as our speaker,” said Kathryn Stell, an event organizer and Director of the Office of Minority Student Affairs at the University. “He’s truly one of the most important figures in the civil rights movement.”

    Stell said bringing Lawson to campus fulfills one of the University’s chief goals for its commemoration: “As we get further and further away from the’50s and ’60s, it’s increasingly important that our students who haven’t lived through this have a chance to hear living witnesses to history and see how the work of the civil rights movement is still very relevant today.”

    Making his third visit to Chicago, the 72-year-old Lawson is currently pastor emeritus at the Holman United Methodist Church in Los Angeles. A Methodist minister for more than 40 years, Lawson has devoted much of his life to introducing nonviolent protest methods–from letter writing to sit-ins to mass-scale marches–to activists seeking social or political change.

    Lawson first rose to prominence as a civil rights leader in Nashville, Tenn., during the 1950s.

    As a divinity student at Vanderbilt University and a leader of the Nashville Christian Leadership Council, Lawson became fascinated by the nonviolent protest techniques of Mahatma Gandhi. In 1959, he began training a group of students from four black colleges in Nashville on the direct-action techniques used by political activists in India. Lawson, like many other activists, had become frustrated with southern states that were ignoring the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1954 ruling in Brown vs. Board of Education, which had desegregated public schools.

    In February 1960, Nashville students–including such eventual civil rights leaders as John Lewis and Marion Barry–began their sit-ins at the segregated lunch counters of department stores in downtown Nashville. On May 10, 1960, Nashville became the first major southern city to desegregate its public spaces.

    Lawson’s success in that city caught the attention of Dr. King, and eventually provided the blueprint for a nationwide movement. Lawson mentored the Freedom Riders in 1961, a group of men and women, black and white, who traveled to the Deep South to directly challenge the region’s Jim Crow laws and the non-compliance with a U.S. Supreme Court decision that prohibited segregation in all interstate public transportation facilities.

    After the 1960s, Lawson has continued as an activist. In fact, Lawson, who has focused on a wide range of issues, including gay rights, racial profiling, economic justice, and Iraq, has been arrested for civil disobedience more times in the past 10 years than he was during the 1950s and 1960s.

    In addition to Lawson’s address, the University’s commemoration will include “In His Own Words,” a taped recording of King that will be played, a processional featuring Loose Roots, the University’s Korean drum troupe, and musical performances by the Kenwood High School Girls’ Chorus and the University’s student gospel group Soul Umoja.

    The Martin Luther King, Jr. Day commemoration, which is free and open to the public, is co-organized by OMSA, the Martin Luther King, Jr. Day Committee, Rockefeller Memorial Chapel, and the University Community Service Center.