Reverend James Lawson, a revered figure, a living legend, a man who worked alongside Martin Luther King Jr. and even influenced King about Gandhi and his teachings of non-violence, which was a monumental force used during the Civil Rights Era, was such an honor and pleasure to have at Moravian College. His speech given on April 23rd seemed as if we too were in the making of history, listening to his teachings revolving around non-violence, activism, and starting movements. Moreover, it was a privilege to hear Rev. Lawson talk these past couple of days.
“Chaos or Community” Where do we go from here?” was his last speech for the duration of his stay at Moravian College, held at Prosser Auditorium, and I would say was definitely a remarkable, memorable and strong way to finish his visit.
He began with a great, warm felt introduction by saying, truly his stay gave him a sense of community again and how he greatly appreciated it here. He said that we, as a people, are very much “alive,” and how humans have the capability to be “alive.” He briefly mentioned his time in prison (as a result to his objection of conscription on the Korean War and anti-war beliefs) where he spent several months. He met and discussed with murderers, thieves, and different types of criminals, but in fact said, “They were all still ‘alive’ and very ‘human,’ and after leaving prison he spent the next 3 years in India where he encountered people originating from various customs,religions, and ethnicities and how they too are very ‘human’ and very much ‘alive.’ These statements to me insinuated his notion of equality, and despite our different backgrounds or walks of life, in the end we are all human beings.
The title of his speech was derived from a book by Martin Luther King Jr. written in 1967. “A theme to represent the non-direct action we call the Civil Rights Movement. A question King raised for all of us.” Lawson gave justice and a new narrative to the Civil Rights Movement. He debunked many myths and ideals about how the society portrays the history of the Civil Rights Movement today, and stated that “ it has some racist and underbelly tones” and how it is mostly remembered as “something that black people wanted to accomplish.” The Civil Rights was not just a black struggle but was an omnibus struggle.
Today, the Civil Rights Movement is not given as much recognition and detailed accounts of the struggle leaders and activists encountered to reach various common goals for the society. The Civil Rights movement paved the way for not only black people but other minorities, such as women, Hispanics, Asians, Indians and etc. It brought a consciousness to the American public about “personal freedom” and how freedom should be for all people, and it changed the face of a whole nation. The Civil Rights movement is also detached from being a part of American history.
According to Lawson, the Civil Rights Movement should be synonymous with names such as the “Black Freedom Movement or 2nd American Revolution” but unfortunately it isn’t. He implied that there should be a 3rd revolution and the Civil Rights Movement is not over. The governmental system is still disadvantaging people such as minorities through systemic forms of oppression such as Mass Incarceration, Poverty, Homelessness and etc.
Lawson gave inspirational advice into how we can be the change we want to see or overcome. His essential elements of teaching was,“You are somebody, each person has the power and influence or capacity to make a change. You are a human being, you have life, love and power, use it in conjunction with others and you can do great things.” He mentioned that Representative John Lewis, who was a young man when listening to his teachings, who later played a significant role on the march at Selma and the Civil Rights Movement wrote in his memoir that Rev. Lawson saved his life, but Lawson disagreed to that claim by explaining that we ourselves have the power to save our own lives. “We are the salt, we are the light, we have the energy of the universe…”
He also stated that, “The beginning place for change is to realize that nothing is comprehensible to your life. That we all must envision a plan. We must work towards the struggle we may not see, set an agenda to dismantle the tyranny, and provide the space to do the work of justice.”
He encouraged the audience by telling us that being bystanders will not dissolve racism. We must take part and dismantle the four major institutionalized ideologies that influence decision making in the United States: racism, sexism, violence, plantation capitalism. That in order to reach the common goal of equality those ideologies need to be banished. “We can not artificially make peace, because the roots of race are so embedded in society. We’re not going to make peace until we dismantle those ideologies.”
A great lesson from that speech that had such great meaning is the story of the young boy. A young boy (around the age of 16) was severely beaten and suffered critical injuries, including a concussion while participating in the march, and was sent to the hospital. While Lawson was narrating the story most would think that the boy would be filled with rage, vengeance and anger, but Lawson said that the young boy said in response to his injuries, “I love my enemies…I know they hate me and I took a bad beating but I got my dignity now and I’m not going to let anyone take it from me.” This was very inspiring to hear, in a world filled with hate, this young boy who probably faced a near death experience still has hope and ambition.
This depicted to me what is missing in our future generational leaders and students. A sense of resilience, which needs to be adapted for a successful journey to create an effective change in society.
Listening to a living legend, such as himself allowed such an in-depth understanding and perspective for the Civil Rights Movement, and greater reasoning and rationale for this movement. He left us with posing questions, “What are we going to do for the next generation?” Implying that humanity’s fate is in our hands, and like what King said it’s either co-existence or co-annihilation.
– Victoria Alukpe