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January 6, 2003

Activist James Lawson Jr. to speak at Martin Luther King Jr. Convocation

By Louise Donahue

The Rev. James M. Lawson Jr., a longtime crusader for civil rights and nonviolent solutions throughout the world, will be the keynote speaker at UC Santa Cruz's annual Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Convocation at 7 p.m. on January 21 at the Santa Cruz Civic Auditorium.

James M. Lawson Jr. worked in the 1950s and '60s with King in the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. Photo: Rick Reinhard, Fellowship of Reconciliation.

The following day, Lawson will participate in a panel discussion with faculty and students at UCSC's Mainstage Theater at 7:30 p.m., about effective use of nonviolent political action.

Lawson worked in the 1950s and '60s with King in the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. Fellow civil rights activist and now U.S. Rep. John Lewis of Georgia has described Lawson as an architect of the nonviolent direct-action strategy of the civil rights movement in the 1960s.

"Jim Lawson knew…that we were being trained for a war unlike any this nation had seen up to that time, a nonviolent struggle that would force this country to face its conscience," Lewis wrote in his autobiography, Walking With the Wind. "Lawson was arming us, preparing us, planting in us a sense of rightness and righteousness," he added.

Lawson was president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, founded by King, for 14 years, and traveled to India to study Gandhi's techniques.

He was an activist from an early age, and by the time he was 20 his views on racial injustice and the Cold War had gotten him labeled a communist by his hometown newspaper in Massillon, Ohio. Lawson also served time in prison as a "prisoner of conscience" for not cooperating with the draft prior to the Korean War.

Over the years, Lawson has pushed a varied agenda, with a common theme of promoting peace and justice. In 1982, he organized a Peace Sunday event in Los Angeles that brought thousands of people to the Rose Bowl, and soon after addressed thousands of peace marchers in the streets of West Berlin. He has organized low-wage workers, supported the living-wage movement, served on the board of the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice, and spoken out against discrimination against gays and lesbians.

In 2000, Lawson traveled to Iraq with an interfaith delegation from the Fellowship of Reconciliation, a peace organization, to support the lifting of sanctions against that country. "I have long connected the sanctions against the Iraqi people with my discussions on nonviolence, on Dr. King, and on justice struggles in the United States." he said in an interview with Fellowship, a publication of the Fellowship of Reconciliation.

Now retired as pastor of the Holman United Methodist Church in Los Angeles, Lawson was the Luce Urban Lecturer at the Divinity School, Harvard University, in 2000-01, and taught a course on nonviolent struggle in the United States at UCLA in 2000. He plans to teach another UCLA course on nonviolence this spring.

Lawson has also been a Regents' Lecturer at the University of California, Riverside; Brooks Professor of Religion at the University of Southern California; and Adjunct Professor at the School of Theology at Claremont College. For more than 10 years, Lawson hosted a weekly national cable television program, Lawson Live, on the Hallmark network, and plans to resume the program in the spring.

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