The Civil Discourse and Social Change initiative kicked off the semester with a lecture commemorating Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. The Rev. James Lawson spoke about his work with King, and the admiration he had for him.
“Its an important day. We should celebrate it as the second American Revolution day,” Lawson said, referring to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day, which is celebrated on the third Monday every January.
Lawson briefly described why he has such strong feelings about equality and racism. He said he was four years old when he found out what racism was, and knew he was going to resist and fight it. He said he was in fourth grade when his mother convinced him that he could not fight with his fists, but with his mind.
“We human beings did not create life; life is a gift,” Lawson said. “Each and every person was given life equally and therefore should be treated equally.”
“I didn’t have to become a racist to fight racism,” Lawson said. “I had (the) aspirations of Martin Luther King Jr. before I knew him or his name.”
Lawson was living and studying in India in 1955 when a newspaper was handed to him. The front page read, “50,000 Negros Boycott in Montgomery, Ala.” He shouted in excitement.
“It was the day I was hoping and praying for,” Lawson said. He began to follow King’s career through the newspaper and radio.
“I came to know him very well through the press,” Lawson said.
Lawson and King met in 1957. They realized they knew some of the same people. They marched through most of the south together. In 1961, they both helped organize the Freedom Ride where 16 African Americans rode on a bus from Washington, D.C. to Birmingham, Ala. The Riders on the bus faced the Ku Klux Klan (KKK) when they reached Ala.
“The KKK burned the bus,” he said.
The group kept going.
When they reached Birmingham, there were police and townspeople waiting for them. The bus-riders were attacked and 12 were seriously injured, Lawson said.
Lawson recalled the 1966, “March Against Fear” in Mississippi, which was stopped by the highway patrol.
“They were trained on beating the heads of black people,” Lawson said. The police officers had never had people like King look them in the eyes and tell them they had a right to be there, Lawson added. He said he watched one officer with his hand shaking as he placed it on his gun holster, ready to shoot at any sudden movement.
Lawson recalled his last moments with King, just hours before he was assassinated.
“He became a powerful voice across the world,” Lawson said.
“Where do we go from here, chaos or community?” Lawson asked. “We can either fight and get nowhere with chaos, or come together and figure things out as a community,” Lawson said.
Lawson concluded his lecture by reminding the audience how society has changed since the civil rights movement.
Anybody can get on a plane, bus or a train, and not think twice about where to sit or stand, he said.