Activist speaks about his involvement in the Civil Rights Movement

Britten Fay

Students viewed a short documentary about how The Rev. James Lawson helped bring the Civil Rights Movement to light. Photo Credit: Patrick Dilanchian / Contributing Photographer

In February of 1960, black students from Fisk University began weekly sit-ins at white-only lunch counters in Nashville, Tennessee.  Armed only with the philosophy of nonviolence, they simply sat quietly and turned a racially divided country upside down.

This segment from the documentary “A Force More Powerful” was shown in the Oviatt Library Presentation Room during the Reverend  James Lawson’s second speech at CSUN this semester.

The documentary specifically showed how he helped bring about the Civil Rights movement, but it also makes a larger point.

“I showed this segment because most of the people in it are students like yourselves and I wanted to show you an organized effort that created change,” Lawson said.

That change came in increments over time.

From initial local desegregation to the Civil Rights Act in 1964 that prohibits discrimination in public places, provides for integration of schools and other public and private facilities and makes employment discrimination illegal.

Racial divides did not vanish there and the struggle continues to this day, but it all came about through humble beginnings.

Lawson, a Methodist minister from Ohio, brought Gandhi’s ideas to Nashville and began teaching evening workshops at a church near the Fisk campus.

He said his objective was to end segregation through nonviolent action.

“We did not know exactly where we were going, but we were convinced we had to create struggle and movement,” Lawson said.

When the sit-ins began, the initial reaction from many whites was one of bemusement, but then of shock and frustration as the students kept returning to the lunch counters.

Society, that just months before existed in a tidy status quo of segregation, suddenly made no sense, according to the documentary.

They tried threatening and arresting the students as the weeks went by, but more took their places.

Even when it became known before one sit-in that police were going to allow some gangsters to beat the students before they were arrested, the protestors continued their sit-ins.

Lawson said people volunteer on idealism, but it is courage that sees the change through, Lawson said.

He taught activists how to organize and negotiate and to prepare themselves for what they would be facing.

“Risk and sacrifice is a part of what social change is about,” Lawson said.

Authorities soon realized they were utterly unprepared to deal with this method of dissent.

Lawson said the city and police expected to provoke violence and, in return, justify their own violence in putting down the demonstrations.

However, students did not take the bait and in some cases, action against them backfired. Arrested students sitting in jail for 48 hours brought thousands of blacks in Nashville to their support.

When a prominent black attorney’s home was bombed, Lawson said he organized a silent march to city hall.  The mayor of Nashville was waiting when the marchers arrived and posed questions about the morality of discrimination and segregated lunch counters. He could not help but agree with them, he said.

The demonstrations soon turned to boycotts of community shopping centers that were segregated as well as flyers asking people not to attend segregated lunch counters.

This allowed sympathetic members of the community to participate, not just blacks.

Soon the local economy was beginning to feel the lack of business and news of the revolution was getting out. The Civil Rights movement was now on the national agenda.

Lawson said he agreed to come to CSUN because he sees more activism today than before, but that it needs to be rooted in the theory and strategy of nonviolence to bring about real change.

Over his career, he has marched for many causes with many people including Cesar Chavez and Rosa Parks and he said he helped to fulfill their dreams.

“I’m now marching with you to the tune of social discourse and change,” Lawson said.  “We can be better people no matter how little or how much we’ve achieved.”