Feb. 27 2013 12:00 AM

'Nonviolent tactics are the best political tactics'


“Slavery to Freedom: An American Odyssey” is an annual lecture series featuring icons of the African-American struggle for civil rights. 

Rev. James Lawson, 84, is the final speaker in the series. Time Magazine listed him as one of seven icons of the civil rights movement. He served 14 months in prison in his protest of the Vietnam War. 

Did your imprisonment change how you thought of war? 

Violence may not always be the best argument, but it can be a logical argument, so I’m not absolutely anti-violence. I supported WWII. I was not a typical conscientious objector. I went to prison for sending my draft card back, and I did that because I think the conscription law was  a continuation of the Jim Crow laws. 

Nonviolence makes a critique of violence over its efficacy and the harm it brings over human life. I could have avoided the draft by being a conscientious objector, by going to school or citing my status as a pre-ministerial student. I could have taken any of those three courses and avoided challenging the law, but I took a stand. 

What´s your take on the current state of activism in America?

Our society is more activist than I remember it. There are more people than ever who are critical of our society from different angles who want to see change. But the opposition to social change is more fiercely organized and sophisticated with money. Billions of dollars go into confusing the public from change that could go in the right direction. We the people have not recognized that nonviolent tactics are the best political tactics. Not the vote — nonviolence. 

What do you see as the biggest soical injustice today? 

Structured poverty is one of the biggest historic injustices there has ever been, and in the last 30 years it has only grown. Slavery was a form of structured poverty. That’s still with us, and still a critical issue. 

The right-to-work movement is a big business movement that mostly affects the Deep South, where you also see the biggest rates of poverty and see states that are ranked at the bottom for quality of life and education.  Why Michigan took it over, I’ll never know. It’s a big step back.

Do you think Black History Month is still relevant in 2013?

Absolutely. The effort to work on black history has led to the emergence of women’s studies and Hispanic studies, among others, and created millions of informed Americans. We are the only nation, except for maybe Canada, whose people come from every continent and represent the entirety of the human race. To me, that’s history’s way of telling us that we can be a race of people who can learn how to cooperate and be self-governing, creative and strong. 

Did the Civil Rights movement accomplish its goal?

No, but as one of the architects of the movement, I´m not afraid to say that we accomplished far more than I expected. And it’s still more than what people realize.

Rev. James Lawson
Feb. 28
5 p.m.
Big Ten A, Kellogg Hotel and Conference Center