“Lawson was black, a thirty-1-year-old activist from Ohio who had served a year in prison for refusing to fight in the Korean War. Upon his release, he became a missionary to India, exactly where he immersed himself in Mohandas Gandhi’s theories of nonviolence. In 1957, right after returning to the United States, he met and befriended Dr. Martin Luther King, a man he currently admired from a distance. He remembered Gandhi’s prophecy that possibly 1 day a black man from America would take up the bring about of nonviolence and push it to heights additional impressive than the Mahatma himself had accomplished.
“Lawson believed King could be that man. The admiration among them was mutual. King had under no circumstances met anyone like Lawson, with such a tightly woven understanding of the philosophy of Gandhi and the gospel of Jesus. King instantly urged his Methodist pal to move to the South and impart his information to the civil rights movement. Lawson agreed. He moved to Nashville and in the fall of 1958 started holding workshops at Kelly Miller Smith’s Initial Baptist Church. It was a venerated institution, the oldest black church in Nashville, with roots going back to the 1830s. Frederick Douglas had spoken there, and later Martin Luther King, but no 1 had the influence that James Lawson did as the 1950s drew to a close. He was teaching, in impact, a Christian adaptation of Gandhi, the radical pursuit of brotherhood and justice that would quickly develop into the animating force of the sit-ins.
“In Lawson’s understanding, this was not a tactic, but a way of living rooted in the notion of redemptive suffering. For some it was counterintuitive, this thought that discomfort can open the heart to compassion, and that a heart with no malice can transform other hearts, turning enemies into mates. In Lawson’s hands, the sheer magnitude of the idealism was mesmerizing for several of the students, tied as it was to the notion of freedom, and they left the meetings with their heads in a spin.
” ‘There was some thing of a mystic about him,’ remembered John Lewis, a farm boy from South Alabama who had come to Nashville to study theology, ‘something holy about his manner. . . . .’
“Lawson told them they had been about to start out a war. But only 1 side would fight with violence. Theirs would not. They would accept the blows that could rain down when they challenged the laws of racial segregation. But self-discipline and tolerance would not be adequate — they should also enjoy the men and women who abused them, should see and respect the humanity of their attackers, who had been also victims, in their personal strategies, of the hate-filled program in which they lived. If that program had been ever to modify, Lawson declared, the indicates employed to bring about that modify should be constant with the ends they had been in search of to attain. And so it was not adequate basically to resist the urge to hit back. ‘The urge can not be there,’ Lawson stated. ‘you have to have no need to hit back.’ ”