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James Lawson

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“When you are a child of God … you try thereby to imitate Jesus … you recognize that even the enemy has a spark of God in them, has been made in the image of God and therefore needs to be treated as you, yourself, want to be treated.”

James Lawson

One of James Lawson’s early memories was the day he got into a fight at school and his mother told him that fighting did not solve things and there must be a “better way.” This idea stuck with Lawson, and as a young man, he became fascinated by Jesus’ teachings in the Sermon on the Mount. He actively sought to be a peacemaker, was jailed for resisting the draft, and later traveled as a missionary to India where he studied nonviolence.

In 1958, Lawson moved to Nashville to teach workshops in nonviolent tactics to student activists who were planning a sit-in campaign. He rooted his teachings in the example of Jesus, believing, “you can see the image of God [even] in this person who’s out to do you in.”

While angry bystanders threw food, spat at, insulted, and punched them, the students stayed true to nonviolence, neither shrinking back nor retaliating. The sit-ins ended three months later when downtown lunch counters opened to black customers for the first time.

Afterward, Lawson continued to train activists in other cities, and helped develop strategies for freedom rides, marches and strikes.

After Dr. King was assassinated, Lawson started to visit James Earl Ray, the man convicted of the killing. He said, “The motivation was simple. I did not see it as something apart from the love of God or the love of Jesus.” Lawson eventually became Ray’s pastor and officiated his wedding in prison, as well as his funeral.

Next: Joan Trumpauer Mulholland



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