James Lawson: An Advocate of Peaceful Change For more than 50 years, the Rev. James Lawson has taught and practiced the principles of non-violent resistance. The Vanderbilt University professor talks with Steve Inskeep about how those principles apply in a time of war.
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James Lawson: An Advocate of Peaceful Change

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James Lawson: An Advocate of Peaceful Change

James Lawson: An Advocate of Peaceful Change

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When the reverend James Lawson remembers an event from the Civil Rights Movement, he describes it in a distinctive way.

Reverend JAMES LAWSON (Vanderbilt University): We made the decision to desegregate downtown Nashville, pull the signs down.

MONTAGNE: He says we made the decision, meaning nonviolent activists decided. They didn't ask anybody. James Lawson regards peaceful protest as a source of power. And he's the latest voice of experience in a conversations we call The Long View. He's a leading theorist of nonviolence. He became that even though his protest got him expelled from Vanderbilt University Divinity School in the 1960s. When he spoke with Steve Inskeep he was teaching at the same school that once threw him out.


Is the world a very different place now that you're back at Vanderbilt University by invitation, and rather than being an expelled student, you're teaching people.

Rev. LAWSON: Yes. I think that does reflect the way in which history springs surprises on you.

INSKEEP: James Lawson has seen some history in his 78 years. We called him to find out how or if his views of apply in this time of war. We started with the decision Lawson made more than half century ago. He went to prison for refusing the draft in the Korean War.

Rev. LAWSON: As I continue to pray and meditate, and reflect, and read, it became clear to me that violence and war were in the same category of the mistreatment of the neighbor. So that I could not do violence.

INSKEEP: But this is the thing that seems significant. You had chosen you did not want to go to war, but you had this opportunity to simply get a deferment, to step away and be out on religious or on student grounds.

Rev. LAWSON: Well -

INSKEEP: And you said no thanks to the easy way out.

Rev. LAWSON: Because I thought it was unfair. I thought the conscription act, if it were going to be fair you had no deferments. Everyone went.

INSKEEP: Did they send the police out to get you?

Rev. LAWSON: An FBI agent, with whom I'd become acquainted, called me and told me that there is an arrest warrant that he had seen. And he decided that he wanted to issue that warrant himself, and that he would guide me through the process. I was sentenced to three years in prison of which I served 14 months.

INSKEEP: Did you feel that you had accomplished something by going to prison?

Rev. LAWSON: Yes. I discovered that there was a strength and power in me to live out of my own conscience.

INSKEEP: Why do you think the tactics of nonviolent protests have seemingly been less effective in recent years? You could go through a list of people who have gone to various institutions that they don't like and gotten arrested at the gates. You could mention soldiers who have declined to return to the war in Iraq, and have turned themselves in for arrest. You could go on and on.

Rev. LAWSON: But Steve -

INSKEEP: Uh-hmm.

Rev. LAWSON: The reality is that public education and academia, and the media have kept people from receiving the information about nonviolent struggle in the world. In fact, one of the interesting paradoxes of the 20th Century is that the 20th Century was the bloodiest century ever. But at the same time, the 20th Century was also the century where nonviolence struggle came of age. I give you one illustration - the Solidarity Movement in Poland.

INSKEEP: Against the communist government there in the ‘80s.

Rev. LAWSON: Against the communist dictatorship. The same thing happened in Czechoslovakia, in East Germany. Millions of people demonstrated in the streets in a nonviolent fashion, and caused the collapse of governments, including the Soviet Union.

INSKEEP: Are there limits to nonviolence as a tactic or as a strategy?

Rev. LAWSON: Isn't the bigger question, are there limits to the role of violence in solving problems?

INSKEEP: Well, let's grant you that question, and say the answer is yes. And I think everyone would agree there are limits to when violence can be effective.

Rev. LAWSON: But, but, but, but, Steve -

INSKEEP: But let's pursue the other side of that.

Rev. LAWSON: But Steve, nonviolence has hardly been tried. Just take one illustration, the Middle East. The violence has steadily escalated. More people have hatred for other people in the Middle East than ever before in my lifetime.

INSKEEP: Well, let me as you about that, because that's one of the situations that make me wonder about the limits of nonviolence. The question is those hard cases like the Middle East, if you are an Iraqi today, or a westerner today for that matter, and you are facing someone who believes that if you do not follow their religion precisely you should simply be killed. How do you respond to that nonviolently? Don't you just end up dead?

Rev. LAWSON: Well, that's what's going on now. All violence does is determine who gets killed and who may survive with enough power to take control of the situation and shape it. So see, I mean, and what I'm saying to you, Steve, is that you are asking the question from the wrong side.

Why of all the power groups in the Middle East has there not been a call for all the parties putting down their weapons and declaring a moratorium on suicide bombing, on missiles being shot at people, at houses being destroyed and people being killed. You have to talk instead of kill.

INSKEEP: How much harder is it to apply principles of nonviolence when you get into a wartime situation where it seems that there is no conscience that is ready to be appealed to, and there are no rules? No limits?

Rev. LAWSON: All right. From the early days in the Gandhi struggle to decolonize India -

INSKEEP: To free India from British rule, yeah.

Rev. LAWSON: The British Empire. It was said, well, the British have conscience, and therefore it will work. But in fact this is a misunderstanding of nonviolence. Nonviolence tries to create a different configuration of power so that the opponents come to recognize that they can do nothing about the movement that is intervening with their daily life.

In the city of Nashville in 1960, the incidents of the white thugs beating up on us, throwing rocks at us and, all the rest of us, and all the taunting and the name calling, we responded not with attitudes or behavior like that. We responded with our own dignity, and with insisting that the problems needed to be faced and could be solved.

MONTAGNE: James Lawson spoke with Steve Inskeep. You can find all our Long View conversations at NPR.org.

MONTAGNE: This is NPR News.

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