James M. Lawson, Jr. (born 1928) is a minister and civil rights activist. As a college student, he joined the Fellowship for Reconciliation and the Congress of Racial Equality. He declared himself a conscientious objector and refused to report for the draft in 1951, serving fourteen months in prison as a result. As a Methodist missionary to India he studied Gandhi's principles of nonviolence. Enrolling in the Vanderbilt University Divinity School, he began nonviolence training workshops for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. These led to the sit-ins in downtown Nashville in 1960. He played a role in efforts such as the Freedom Rides and the Mississippi Freedom Project (Freedom Summer). He was expelled from Vanderbilt because of his civil rights activities. He became pastor of Centenary Methodist Church in Memphis, and in 1968 was chair of the strategy committee for a strike by African American sanitation workers. He invited Martin Luther King, Jr., to come to Memphis to support the strike. King delivered his famous "Mountaintop" speech there the day before he was assassinated. Lawson continued his ministry, leading Holman Methodist Church in Los Angeles from 1974 to 1999, as well as his social activism and nonviolence training. Vanderbilt apologized to Lawson for expelling him, and he later served as a Distinguished Visiting Professor at the school.
Lawson discusses his education and his interest in civil rights. Lawson explains how the sit-ins in Nashville, Tennessee, were organized. He describes the role of local police in curbing or promoting mob violence during civil rights demonstrations. He describes becoming involved in sit-ins in Nashville, and the trouble that it caused at Vanderbilt University where he was attending the Divinity School. Lawson was expelled from Vanderbilt due to his civil rights activities, and he recalls protests of the Divinity School faculty who supported his work. Lawson finished his education at Boston University. Lawson discusses his views of the importance of nonviolence and the effect that Gandhi's teachings have had upon him.
[These digitized texts are based upon 1964 typed transcripts of Robert Penn Warren’s original interviews. Errors in the original transcripts have not been corrected. To ensure accuracy, researchers should consult the audio recordings available on this site.]
ROBERT PENN WARREN REV. J.M. LAWSON (Memphis)
Tape 1 3/17/64
Warren: Shall we start with some vital statistics – just – I have some of those, of course, but just let’s sort of rehearse them. Where were you born, Mr. Lawson?
Lawson: Uniontown, Pennsylvania, in 1928.
Warren: You went to school there?
Lawson: No. I was born in the Methodist parsonage, and before we started to school – before I started to school, rather, we moved to Massillon, Ohio, and I did all of my secondary work in Ohio.
Warren: Where did you go to college and seminary?
Lawson: I went to Baldwin-Wallace College – the Methodist college just outside of Cleveland, Ohio; then my seminary work at Oberlin Graduate School of Theology and Vanderbilt Divinity School and Boston University.
Warren: You left Vanderbilt to go to Boston after the difficulty there?
Lawson: Yes, I did.
Warren: I remembered it. Do you mind going into that matter? I mean the Vanderbilt situation, the Nashville situation a little bit?
Lawson: No. This began in Nashville, actually, in the early part of 1959, when the local affiliate of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference started the process of the negotiations in the downtown area. We adopted the downtown because we felt that we wanted to somehow focus the attention of the city on the major problems of segregation, and the need for genuine integration. We felt that downtown was the best place to get this problem focused. Well, then we went on through a process of negotiation and workshops and training of students and adults, testing them in the downtown area – testing some of the places that we’d gone to for negotiation, and then of course, we began what we called the public phase in February of 1960 – in fact, February 13 was the first major sit-in in the downtown area.
Warren: Were you in that sit-in?
Lawson: No, I was not. I organized it and briefed it and brought the people together, but as I remember I was not – I was out of the city on that first sit-in. Then, for about two weeks we had sit-ins, which were highly successful in a variety of ways – in numbers, in terms of impact, in terms of making the public issue. Of course, it became a public issue. Also, in speaking to Negroes, Negro people responded to this almost immediately and instantaneously, but about the 27th of February, in that last week, I know, we found – we discovered that the merchants had gone down to the major (mayor?) and the city police and said, “You’ve got to stop the sit-in”. And we, in turn, went to the city police – we had –
Warren: How big an organization, or what is the organization, was this that did this or was it just simply a few who took it upon themselves. Or do you know?
Lawson: It seemed to be the ones who had been involved, as far as we could – were able to find out. It wasn’t – it was a loosely knit group, simply people who got together out of mutual concern problem and not any organization as such. Well, we also tried to make overtures to the mayor. We had an independent ministers’ group and the mayor refused to see them – and this was a multi-racial group, incidentally. The mayor was unavailable to anyone, both from our – from within the movement, and also then from the independent groups that tried to see him. We did have interviews with the chief of police, who told us very bluntly that if we demonstrated on the following Saturday there would be arrests, and said that he had been instructed by the mayor to find what laws could be used – and this is what he told us. He said that the legal department was searching for laws, and he said that – he told us that the laws would probably be used would either be the trespass one, or breaking the peace, breaching the peace – so we knew this. So we knew as we went into the last weekend-that weekend, rather, and approached demonstrations, that arrests were certain to be the case. Well, that is what happened. I think it was on February 28th then that we had a major sit-in. There were arrests. We had a program designed, expecting either arrests and/or violence, and both occurred, because up to this time, while the police had been very protective – and making certain that crowds kept moving and people kept moving, so that there was no – you know, not too much harassment during the demonstrations. On this Saturday very suddenly the police disappeared. We didn’t see them. And, of course, then the crowd formed and young, white men formed into hood groups and surrounded the people and into stores and whatnot. We saw both violence and then police came in and proceeded to arrest people.
Warren: Excuse me. Then the police came in, you say?
Lawson: Yes, then the police proceeded very early in the day to come to at least two of the stores and arrest people. Well, of course, we were prepared for this and we were also prepared then to have them arrest several hundred people. When they discovered that there was no end to the arrests – that they were simply going in the store arresting, and as soon as they arrested that group, move to another store, then other people have moved in. They stopped arresting after about an hour and a half of this. Well, in any case then, even further mobilization, both of the movement and in terms of its support, we got the representatives of the various denominations to call all their pastors to make major presentations in every Negro church that next Sunday morning. They also went further and demanded that the mayor come before them and talk to them. They, of course, also then, began to do such things as to raise money and to get underneath the whole effort. Well, on Monday morning, when the mayor had been unavailable, they simply sent him a telegram asking him to show up at a meeting. This was – this meeting was held at the First Baptist Church, and over three hundred Negro ministers were there.
Warren: This is the church with Mr. Kelly Smith.
Lawson: Kelly Smith, right, is the pastor of that church at the present moment, as well. Well, the meeting had been planned by a special committee. They had asked that about three men would question the mayor as to his policy, both concerning segregation and as to why violence were permitted and as to why arrests occurred. Now, actually, I had been out of the city on that Sunday, as I had a speaking engagement for a mass meeting on the effort going on in Chattanooga. When I returned late that night, I was told, “You are to summarize for the mayor’s benefit what this is all about – what we have for our goals and what we are trying to do”. So, at the end of this meeting with the mayor then, I was asked to give this summary, which I did. The mayor, as an example, had emphasized the fact that the sit-in was a trespass upon private property. I took the stance in answering this that human rights took precedence over any other kind of right, and I quoted Abraham Lincoln – and then went on to enunciate what seemed to me to be certain Christian principles that were valid here. He had stressed the fact that this was a breaking of the law, and then I went on to suggest – to say, rather, that where the law was an impeding law – where the law was used simply to oppress people, then it wasn’t really a law. It wasn’t justice. It wasn’t consistent with democratic thought, and certainly was inconsistent with Christian thought; and I used a statement such as this: “The arrest occurred, not because the law was an effort to preserve the finest values of our society, but in this instance the law was a gimmick to intimidate, harass, and if possible, halt a legitimate movement of social concern and justice.”
Warren: Would you distinguish on that part about the relevance of law between the non-violent obstruction of law and the violent breach of law?
Lawson: Well, oh, yes, definitely. From the non-violent perspective, when one finds that in order to continue to act in a just, and in the manner of conscience, when he discovers that he’s coming up against the law, he does this in a peaceful, creative fashion, - ready always to take the consequences of the law. I think he indicates and shows his respect for the law, and there is recognition that we are a society of law. We have to be if we are to be a democratic society.
Warren: Then there’s recognition of the fact that society as a society of law is implicit in the whole process, as you see it.
Lawson: Right, exactly. And I think this can be traced, of course, in American history. A favorite illustration of mine is the fact that we got our first resolution on religious liberty in the State of Virginia out of the civil disobedience of primarily Baptist ministers, who insisted that they had the right to proclaim the Gospel, had the right to organize congregations in a colony where you had an established religion. And, Patrick Henry proposed this first resolution, and it is said that he proposed it after hearing Baptist ministers preach out of the windows of jails where they had been incarcerated for their breaking of the Virginian – of the Virginia law.
Warren: I didn’t want to interrupt the narrative, except to get that point clearly – more clearly defined.
Lawson: Right. Of course, the mayor, hearing this whole statement, then immediately said, “This man is calling for a blood bath in the streets of Nashville”. I’m positive that he was trying, if possible, to get himself off of the hook politically, because here he was being confronted by men who had supported him in election after election, and he-
Warren: You’re talking now about this group of ministers, that –
Lawson: This group of ministers. They had supported him. He was considered a moderate, and he knew that now they were not simply questioning him, but they were in a sense challenging his behavior, his handling of the whole situation in the city. That was of primary, of course, importance to them. Well, of course, the newspapers picked up the mayor’s comments, and in particular the afternoon paper, the Nashville Banner, immediately then proceeded to editorialize on the calling for a blood bath, and this then went on to investigations, although not in any kind of interviewing, interviews with me personally.
Warren: You mean the calling for the blood bath by the mayor, this is interpreted – was interpreted as advocacy in a subtle way of violence?
Lawson: Yes. Not only that, also, they accepted the mayor’s point of view as an opportunity then to say that J.M. Lawson was an outside agitator, sympathetic with the communist design – well this was the kind of lie that began to appear, both editorially and in newspaper articles.
Warren: What line on the matter of the blood bath, did the Banner take?
Lawson: They gave it a headline space, as I recall, in the afternoon paper, quoting the words of the mayor, and then went down in the main article to describe what the mayor had said, leaving out most of what I had said in the statement that was to be an answer to the mayor. Then, of course, as I said, editorial – they supported the mayor editorially. They said the mayor was quite right – that the sit-in campaign, particularly as described by this supposed Methodist minister – I think was the phrase they often used, certainly did mean violence and did mean a blood bath, and naturally did break up, they said, the whole structure of law and order and showed a gross disrespect for law and order and for democratic processes.
Warren: What about the relations with Vanderbilt Theological school?
Lawson: Well, right. Then, of course, immediately, as this went on, particularly in the afternoon, the chancellor, I understand, of Vanderbilt began to receive many phone calls from primarily prominent alumni, and also, I understand, from the mayor and from some other people downtown, concerning my presence at the school, asking him, I gather, how Vanderbilt permitted me to be there. And, in fact, by Tuesday, the Banner editorials were saying that I had been using Vanderbilt University as a nefarious base of operation, from which I was trying to subvert – of course, at this time I was a part time employer, employee, rather as a Southern staff secretary of the Fellowship of Reconciliation, working in the field of non-violence and reconciliation throughout the South. I had been moving in and out of some of the tension places like Birmingham and Little Rock, Arkansas, was going through a year of crisis, ’57 to ’59, and was going in there almost once a month, in fact during this period – I mean rather prior to that period of ’57, ’58. Well, in other words, the chancellor then began to receive all kinds of pressure, questioning my responsibility, integrity as a student and whatnot, and my motives for being at Vanderbilt. These pressures, then, were reflected in the Dean – in fact, as I recall, the Dean was ordered Monday night to get a statement from me – the Dean of the Divinity School was ordered to get a statement from me on Tuesday denying what the mayor had said about me – and denying that I was all of these things. So, when I first reached the campus on Tuesday, Dr. Nelson asked to see me and I went immediately and this is what he said, and then later on the publicity director of the University came in to help form this statement. My position here was that the damage had already been done, and no statement on my part would counteract what the Banner was saying, or would counteract many images that people had received from these scare headlines, because I have had a personal philosophy for a number of years that you listen only to criticism that is obviously valid, or that has real merit and weight and at least is motivated out of genuine concern – but that public criticism that obviously is more an effort to delay action, or to delay a confrontation, is not the kind of criticism that can really be answered. And so, in any case, I cooperated and we spent, in fact, the entire morning and afternoon with the publicity director and with Dr. Nelson, trying to work out such a statement. We did get a statement written, and we issued it. And that, of course was insufficient. Tuesday night, as I recall, the – Dr. Nelson informed me that the Chancellor wanted me to withdraw from the school. I insisted that I must have some time to think about this. No, that’s not right. Not Tuesday night. Yes, Tuesday night he did call me and tell me that the next morning that the Chancellor felt we needed to have another statement. So, on Wednesday morning we got together again and I wrote still another statement. Wednesday night Dr. Nelson called and came by my home and said that the Chancellor was asking me to withdraw, or to be expelled. I took the position that I needed to have some time to think about it and that I did not feel as though I wanted to withdraw. Now, actually, on Tuesday morning, I had said – I had said to Dean Nelson that if it seems that the University is being harmed by my presence, I will withdraw, I’ll voluntarily withdraw. But, as that day went on and the next day it became very clear that it wasn’t a question of embarrassment of the University – it was rather a question of simply the questioning of my motives and of my integrity. It was saying – well, these press reports obviously have some merit, and you’re not responsible and, therefore, you ought to withdraw because of this. So, by Wednesday night late, I had definitely decided that I would not withdraw. In fact, I recall telling Dean Nelson that within twenty-four hours after I were – would either withdraw, or were expelled from Vanderbilt I would be arrested on some other charge in the city. So, Thursday morning the Chancellor called a meeting of the Divinity School faculty and students, at which time he publicly announced that I had been expelled from the University. This was about 10:00 a.m.
Warren: May I interrupt? In the matter of being arrested was an arrest that you put yourself in a position – to accept, not one that you predicted would happen to you because of your, just because of your general relationships.
Lawson: Yes, right. No.
Warren: Well, what kind of arrest are you talking about?
Lawson: Yes, right, well, you see –
Warren: One that you seek, or one that would come to you?
Lawson: My thesis was that leaving me as a student at Vanderbilt Divinity School, Vanderbilt University, would further embarrass the city if I were arrested as a student of the Divinity School, and that simply by getting me kicked out of the School or away from the School, with no attachment, then they would feel as though the arrest would be easier.
Warren: Yes, as you would be picked up – you’d be sought out for arrest.
Lawson: Right. I would be sought out for arrest.
Warren: Not that you would go and seek to be arrested.
Lawson: Not that I would be demonstrating, or anything like that, but that I would be sought out for a specific arrest.
Warren: I see, yes.
Lawson: So, I was expelled Thursday afternoon. We were having mass meetings every night, and then workshops every day, and of course, many planning sessions going on trying to keep the movement as creative as possible, but we learned Friday morning that the warrant for my arrest had been issued. We were then in the process of a major evaluating session at First Baptist Church, when we learned of this news, and, of course, about 2:00, I think in the afternoon, or so, the several, or four, rather, captains of the police department, came to arrest me, plus a number of other police officers, men. So, I was arrested that Friday afternoon on a charge of conspiring to disrupt business – that was the charge. So that in a sense was the background of the Vanderbilt – story –
Warren: Now a lot of the faculty supported your position, didn’t they.
Lawson: Right. Then, the Divinity School faculty said, even in that week to me, that if anything happened to you, it would be happening to us. They took the attack, after my expulsion, that they would try to negotiate with the administration for my return to the campus, and this went on for over a month. Finally they felt they would get nowhere with the University, with the Chancellor – and he was the key man. So, they then had their Admissions Committee reconsider my application for admission. I filled out new application blanks and all. They did this on the basis of a remark by the Chancellor in one of their sessions that he thought if I were to return to the campus, it would be through the regular channel of being admitted, or re-admitted. They decided that they would take this channel, and I cooperated with them. So that in the early part of April, they had accepted me as a student and they took this fact to the Chancellor, laid my file on the Chancellor’s desk and that Lawson has been readmitted. He requested additional time to consider it, and incidentally, I should say that this was not in April. It was in late May – sometime around Commencement time. They felt he was delaying in order to get through Commencement, and it turned out this was the case. Shortly after Commencement, the day after the Commencement, he received the Committee again and said that “I could not let Lawson be a student at the University”. Well, immediately then, the Divinity School faculty, almost to a man, resigned. Their negotiations then were taken over by the Med School people and Law School and quite a number of the men in the Physical Sciences – in fact, a number of physicist and biologists had been quite active all through here, both in terms of their own positions and with the Divinity School faculty and with the administration.
Warren: That is, you felt you had the sympathy of the University faculty in general?
Lawson: Oh, yes, right. Because I understand now –
Warren: That’s sometimes questioned, you see.
Lawson: Yes, right.
Warren: Tendentiously, there.
Lawson: Yes, exactly. And, in fact, one of the things that has not been said about this is that after the Divinity School faculty had resigned, then the other faculty people took up negotiations and they did it in this way. And, I was told by men in the faculty – that they then went to the Chancellor’s office and said, “We have here the resignation of a hundred and sixty members of your faculty, throughout the University. This includes almost the entirety of the Med School, as one example. There are others,” they said, “who are in the process of writing their letters”. They said, “You must settle the Lawson matter. You cannot have him expelled in this manner.” Now, it is my contention that it was only at this point that the Chancellor decided that he had to do something to reconsider the issues that had been made back in early March. Well, by this time I had only left the city because I did not want to postpone my B.D. beyond August, and so I went on to Boston University. They had made a very fine offer to me in terms of receiving my full credits and in terms of not making any further residential or academic requirements upon me, other than that I would complete one semester, and they would accept the program that I had done at Oberlin and Vanderbilt – which they did. So, my wife and I then left the city and went to start at Boston U.
Warren: What is the consequence then at Vanderbilt? The issue is closed by default, is that it?
Lawson: No. The Chancellor then issued a statement. Now, I’ll try to remember it, as he issued it. In this statement he said, Number 2: that the resignation of Dean Nelson would be accepted as of August 31st and he was relieved of any further responsibility in the University immediately. Number 2: that Lawson could return to the University under the following conditions: - he would not have to re-enroll. He could either transfer his credits from Boston University and receive a degree from Vanderbilt, or he could return to the campus and consult with the professors he had when he was dismissed, and make arrangement to finish his work with them. Either one of these courses to be completed by September 15th. Then, his final word was, the Lawson matter is now closed. I declined the offer, primarily because I felt that in dismissing Dean Nelson, he was simply substituting one scapegoat for another. Number 2: - you –
Warren: You couldn’t profit by Dean Nelson’s –
Lawson: Yes, right. I could not profit by Dean Nelson’s being summarily dismissed and relieved of further responsibility and duty. Then, I further felt and, of course, continue to feel that where people actively identify themselves with the whole effort for change, for equal opportunity and injustice and whatnot, then we in the movement are responsible for identifying ourselves with them. In other words, a term that I have used in many of our workshops is that we are liable for one another – that we have a fundamental responsibility for surrounding one another with concern and affection, with understanding and with creative support.
Warren: Let me take the topic on – that’s suggested by what you say about the Vanderbilt faculty. How significant do you think this support you found from the faculty is in general. How would you project that to other places in the South – to what degree?
Lawson: Well, I suspect that probably in your University, such as Vanderbilt, and your colleges –
Warren: You mean non-State supported –
Lawson: Right. Non-State supported universities and colleges – you could find a – probably remarkably high percent – a high percentage of faculty people who in a sense recognize the problem for what it is, and have a position – a personal position – that is tantamount to support in varying ways and degrees. You will find, I think, probably a high percentage at other institutions – other State institutions, although I think it would be less in percentage than at the privately supported, or independently supported –
Warren: Among the faculty people of the non-State institutions, like Duke or Vanderbilt, would you find a significant difference the Southern born and the ________ most others possibly – from other parts of the country?
Lawson: No, on the contrary. One of the men that the ire of the University was turned towards most vehemently was a Southern-born faculty man in the Divinity School, Everett Tillson, Virginia-born and Southern-educated, and in fact, one of the best scholars that Vanderbilt has produced. I mean, he did his seminary work and plus his PH.D. work at Vanderbilt.
Warren: Yes, I know who he is.
Lawson: One of the best students.
Warren: The pressure that you felt was from the community itself, and what levels of the community?
Lawson: The pressures on the University were from primarily I would think, I think primarily your business people and your wealthy alumni people, because – for, just as an example of this, the alumnus organization of the seminary of the Divinity School voted support for me personally, and criticized the administration for this kind of irresponsible action toward a legitimate student at the University. So, I think that most of the opposition, in fact, the Chancellor admitted privately and in a conversation with the Divinity School negotiation committee that if he had known in April, what – if he had known, rather in March, when I was expelled, what he knew in April, nothing would have ever happened to me. In other words, he took the phone calls he received as being the major perspective, both of the city and of people to the sit-in campaign.
Warren: Well, do you think it was representative of slice of the city?
Warren: You think the city would not have taken this line?
Lawson: That’s right. I do not, and because, in fact, when the mayor did finally appoint a biracial committed, that biracial committee admitted that their mail – their presentations from varying organizations and from a whole variety of organizations in the city was overwhelmingly in favor of the city desegregating.
Warren: This is the mail from Nashville, Tennessee?
Lawson: Yes, this is the mail in Nashville, Tennessee. Yes.
Warren: This is the end of Tape 1 with Reverend J.M. Lawson, of Memphis, Tennessee. Continue on Tape 2.
[These digitized texts are based upon 1964 typed transcripts of Robert Penn Warren’s original interviews. Errors in the original transcripts have not been corrected. To ensure accuracy, researchers should consult the audio recordings available on this site.]
ROBERT PENN WARREN REV. J.M. LAWSON TAPE 2
Warren: Tape 2 of the conversation with the Reverend J.M. Lawson, continue. What you were saying about the support of – that the biracial committee received in Nashville, reminds me of a remark by James Baldwin in his last book. He says that the Southern mob does not represent the will of the majority. He bases on the testimony, as he says, of those most immediately concerned – that is, Negroes who are activists in the South – who are on the picket line. Does this make sense to you?
Lawson: Yes, yes, this is basically correct, and I’ve been recently reading, simply for more background information, and all, simply reading in the field of history of the Negro and history of America in the nineteenth century. And, the pattern by which a buffer was created between the slave owner and the non-slave owner and between the aristocracy that tried to reassert itself after the Civil War and the Negro, this buffer goes on now – and Nashville is a perfect example of this.
Warren: Well, let’s explain that.
Lawson: Well, in Nashville, we have had – oh, since 1960 when we began the public phase of our effort in Nashville, I cannot count the numbers of times that violence has been turned on and off. For example, the first sit-in campaign in the winter and spring of 1960, we started off with complete police protection, because, of course, we always informed the police chief what we were doing and where we were going, and what stores we would be at and the time we would be there, and all. Well, we had complete protection for two weeks, and young men came into the downtown area – tried to form, tried to harass – and many of these groups were just moved out of the downtown area by the police officers. They were not allowed to move. Managers in stores, in fact, worked to see to it that unnecessary groups of – small groups of people never, you know, stayed around their stores. I know this because I observed, I went into many stores we were involved in around the downtown area, throughout this demonstration, to see how things were going and all, and I saw this going on in every store. Then, suddenly, this stopped, and we had gigantic mobs. Then, when it became very clear that a settlement had to be made, the demonstrations went on under peaceful circumstances once again.
Warren: This would seem to imply then, that the mob does act out the will of the majority, or at least the will of the powerful, and the rich.
Lawson: Right, the power structure. In fact, in Nashville, now this wasn’t the only time this happened. This happened in many instances. It happened with the demonstrations with the campaign at the point of the downtown movie theatres. It happened in demonstrations in terms of grocery stores. It’s happened in terms of demonstrations since that time, in specific restaurant campaigns. On some occasions, the police themselves acted as the mob. I mean where they roughed up people, or hit people, or pushed people around.
Warren: This would seem to deny what Baldwin said then. I want to get this straight.
Lawson: Now – in this sense. In the majority, not in the numerical sense, but the majority in the power structure sense, in other words, I am quite certain that in the national scene, it was primarily the mayor himself, with possible a few of his closer friends, or even persons of influence on him, who allowed the police to be present at one time and then to disappear at the next moment. I’m certain that this was not the decision or the will – because I can remember, for an example, one instance of a demonstration on a main downtown street in Nashville where the young white men had had a chance to do a certain amount of violence and they chased on Negro boy off the street. He was not related to the demonstration. He was a bystander. They chased him off the street, up into a second-story arcade beauty parlor, as I recall, where he worked, and there he tried to fight them off with a bottle and they jumped him in the store – in the shop. The police charged in and the next moment they were bringing the Negro boy out to arrest him. And, a couple of white women who were standing on the sidewalk watching this yelled at the police – “You’re arresting the wrong one!” Now, this happened, and there are many illustrations which we don’t have of people – white people who spontaneously express the fact that they did not approve of this permitting of the mob, and then trying to pretend that this was the result simply of a group of people peacefully coming in to demonstrate. It was very obviously the turning on of a faucet, or the turning off of a faucet.
Warren: Yes, if the mob is controlled by somebody – put it that way. Now, who controls the mob? You see –
Lawson: Well, my thesis is that it is the power structure, just using this general term as representing certain political or economic powers in a community. My contention is that the power structure that either permits, or refuses to permit the mob to form – now, let me give you another illustration of this. Here in Memphis, the chief of police on the basis of what happened in Nashville said very early, “We will not allow any mobs to occur in Memphis”. And, it’s been the chief of police, and everyone acknowledges this fact – I mean the Commissioner of Police Armour, of Fire and Police Armour, Claude Armour, had made it clear very early that there would be no mob action in Memphis, and he then has briefed his police and organized his department in that way, so that in Memphis, in spite of the fact that from time to time we have a far more difficult element than in Nashville, because after all we’re the capital city, we sometimes say, of Mississippi, or West Tennessee. In spite of that fact, there has been no significant violence in the city of Memphis.
Warren: Also, do you have a less disciplined group of Negroes here? I mean, is there a bigger margin of Negroes who are not subject to the account by –
Lawson: Yes, certainly, certainly. And, also there has been less – the Memphis scene has been less of an organized non-violent effort. I mean, for example, in Memphis there have been very few workshops on non-violence, for the training and disciplining of people. It’s been more of an imitation of what they’ve seen going on in other places in the city and, you know, other places in the south, rather than a leadership committed to the non-violent approach and trying, then, to see to it that we have volunteers developing leaders in this term. In fact, I’m at this moment, conducting the first workshops for non-violence that the active leadership has supported here in the city of Memphis.
Warren: Let’s talk about the non-violence a little bit. I have a quotation here from Dr. Kenneth Clark on the matter of non-violence, I’d like to read to you, though you probably know it already. Let me read it to you for your response. This is from Dr. Clark. “On the surface, King’s philosophy appears to reflect health and stability, while the black nationalists betray pathology and instability. A deeper, analysis, however, might reveal that there is also an unrealistic, if not pathological basis in King’s doctrine. The natural reaction to injustice is bitterness and resentment. The form that such bitterness takes need not be overtly violent, but the corrosion of human spirit seems inevitable. It would seem, therefore, that any demand that the victims of oppression be required to love those who oppress them places an addition and probably intolerable psychological burden upon them.” Now, I know you’ve encountered that notion in various forms before.
Lawson: Now, if Dr. Clark is defining the non-violent approach simply as passivity, or as some persons have conceived it – trying to ignore either one’s own feelings and personal hatred and hostility, and/or ignore the presence of violence and injustice, now if he’s defining non-violence in that way, then I would quite agree with him. But, if, on the other hand, he’s willing to accept what is Dr. King’s definition of non-violence, namely, that of creative Christian love that comes from the inside of a person, that in a sense heals a person inwardly and enables him, then, to really be a free man – if he defines it in these terms, as we define it, then of course, I think his statement is quite false. On the contrary, he is ignoring the fact that out of this real definition of the non-violent approach, we see all the time, not only the healing up of anger and fear and guilt on the part of both Negro and white people, but we see remarkable instances of courage, that’s genuine courage, I mean, that is courage acting out of a person who is convinced that he must act to help change injustice.
Warren: Now, sometimes the response to this quotation would be that Dr. Clark is referring to a natural man, merely, and not to the natural man redeemed.
Lawson: Yes, that’s a good response.
Warren: Yes, but now if I follow you properly, you are saying something in addition to that. You are saying that also Dr. Clark is neglecting some of the psychological data ________ natural man.
Lawson: Yes, right – exactly.
Warren: That you would base your advocacy of the non-violent approach on a psychological grounding, as well as a theological basis, is that right?
Lawson: Very definitely.
Warren: That makes a big difference, of course.
Lawson: Oh, yes, right. For example – psychologists today, when they talk about the need for patients – a mental patient coming to the point of insight – is, they are talking about the fact that a patient with, let us say, serious hostility, must not simply come to recognize that, but that this insight is the point at which then they can begin to see the roots of the hostility, in a sense, dry up, and to be replaced by the growth of the capacity to love and to understand and to accept.
Warren: Now, here is another set of speculations that go beyond that. Let’s assume that Dr. Clark also has said elsewhere and others do too, that this may work in a Southern Negro society; it does not apply to the Negro population of a large Northern city. Does that make any sense? Now, you were raised in the North. You have seen the North first hand, and if that makes sense, what kind of sense does it make? How does it apply to your whole program?
Lawson: I still disagree with Dr. Clark at this point. I, of course, came into the whole non-violent approach in Ohio as a small boy.
Warren: Was your father – I’m sorry – was your father significant in this fact that you –
Lawson: Not – not – he was partially so, but not as significant from at least the primary motif, as was my mother. Father was more, has been more influential from the point of view of the whole demand for justice and the whole need for social righteousness from the perspective of the Christian faith. This is where my father had a larger impact, although, again, you know, this overlaps in varying ways. But, the point that I was going to make is that though I grew up in a relatively small town in Ohio, this is where for me it became very clear that the whole meaning of Christian love had to be had, a genuine relevancy to the area of race, both in terms of my own security and sense of being a person. And, also, then, from the point of view of being able to react to and change situations of hostility from the society simply because of the color of my skin. Now, it is quite clear that the only thing that Dr. Clark can say is that in the large Northern city, there is a growing disaffection on the part of the Negro and, therefore, a growing bitterness on his part. In part, this bitterness is fed by the persons who migrated from the South over the last ten-fifteen years, thinking they were going to the land of opportunity, and discovering that the land of opportunity had many booby traps in it – booby traps that they were not aware of. Now, I think all this says is that, therefore, that the problem of appearing to the masses of Negro people in terms of the non-violent approach becomes more difficult, because of this greater sense of bitterness and disaffection.
Warren: You mean that bitterness is greater in the Northern city than in the South?
Lawson: Yes, because in the South, in the South the bitterness is still reflected in another way. It’s reflected in the South because of the pattern of segregation and the dualism. It is reflected more here out of a kind of passivity and – by a kind of passivity and apathy, which gets itself reflected primarily within the Negro community itself, where most of the contacts with white people are still on this basis of segregation, and within the thought pattern of segregation. And, then, this is brought back into the Negro community itself. It does not direct itself toward the total society, or towards the white person.
Warren: It means a disorganization of life within the Negro society, that means ________ organization.
Lawson: Exactly. That means that this is certainly one of the features. Of course, it also means a social disorganization in the sense that it becomes exceedingly difficult for Negro people to accept the possibilities that other Negroes are trying to lead them in the right way. One example of this is when this fall, when we had some people running for the school board in Memphis, we had actually some Negroes who said, I’m not going to vote for them. I don’t want them interfering with the schools of Memphis.”
Warren: A strange, paradoxical situation.
Lawson: Exceedingly so.
Warren: What about the apathy in a place like Mississippi – the voting registration apathy – the largest claim made now is six percent, and others who are gauging that will say it’s as low as three and a half of registration, and a very slow movement, in spite of the efforts being made. But the apathy – some will say, “We’re working on it – is very great – you have this – it’s very hard to break this crust of apathy”.
Lawson: Right. Well, I think that the – in the Mississippi case, we have to constantly understand that the apathy is a pretension. It is an apathy that grows out of the whole enforced pattern of segregation for the Negro.
Warren: Oh, clearly, yes.
Lawson: But I’ve been reading recently, as an example, of the – a man by the name of Charles Cardwell, who was one of the Reconstruction leaders in the State of Mississippi, who was finally shot and killed rather brutally, and the article has been lifting up the ways in which the killing went on of Negro people in the State of Mississippi during this period of about 1865 or 1866 on to about 1885, 1890. The numbers are not one, two or three in a town, but in the fifties and in the hundreds, a single town, of killing Negroes who voted by the so-called radical terms, or who were supporting the Reconstruction in terms of the radical party group and all.
Warren: See, the present apathy there then and the withdrawal from political life – you think is a long-range reaction from that period of violence?
Lawson: Why yes. I’m – this more convinces me – yes, that here you had the Klu-Klux-Klan and the night riders and this killing of people openly, and willfully, and this has continued. And, that is a pretty formidable kind of pattern to overturn immediately, and also the passivity and apathy and the bitterness that comes out of that is going to be far more complex to deal with –
Warren: That is – fear is not the main thing, and as somebody said, fear is not the main thing, something may have come from the fear originally, but is now become a thing itself.
Lawson: The fear – exactly. It is not the main thing – it is only one of the factors that is helping to produce the present pattern in the State of Mississippi.
Warren: Let me go back to something else. We were talking about non-violence. Is it true, as is sometimes said, that the responsibility, in a kind of deeply ironical way, must be on the Negro, to practice this. Put it this way – if you have, and I was talking to some one in New York the other day that is deeply interested in this and concerned with the problem – he says, “There’s going to be this summer almost certainly violent outbreaks, spontaneous, unorganized, and completely out of control, except by gun point.” There’s a very great likelihood of this sort of violence. He said, “Then the white man can only do one thing when he faces the Negro mob – take it”. Not defend – probably not defend himself. He must act, you see, accept this in non-violent terms. But then the question arises, how can he? He’s not disciplined for this. He has no – there’s no – he’s in a passive position which just makes it possibly non-violent, as an individual. Do you see what I’m trying to mean – the man on the street. He’s isn’t the law – he hasn’t – has had no seminar of non-violence, he’s had no philosophy to accommodate this. How can he do this? So there’s a possibility then – a moral responsibility in a strange of way may go back to a Negro to set this model. Does that made any sense, as an argument?
Lawson: Yes, I think I understand what you are saying, and I would tend to agree that the – that in spite of what has done on in our history, that the Negro does have a responsibility for trying to help his nation come to a nobler expression of its ideals.
Warren: That’s taking the matter more generally, yes.
Lawson: Yes, and I think that the only way in which this can be done is by cleaving to those very ideals. In other words, we talk about the Christian tradition that has certainly sustained many of our principles, and have been written even into our form of law. Well, my thesis is that we must be non-violent primarily, because this is the only way that is consonant with this whole idealistic tradition, the way of love and peace and truth is the only way to achieve these things in society. So, at least from that point – with that kind of an addition, I do believe that it is the Negro’s responsibility to be non-violent. Of course, another thing to be said is – and there’s a number of other authors have, rather a number of authors have pointed out the theology which has helped to shape the Negro’s mind in so many different ways – from his early appropriation of the Christian faith in the United States, has been a theology very consistent with the non-violent approach. The Negro spiritual for example – where you will never find a word of hatred expressed for any one – where you in turn find a great sympathy with the suffering of Jesus, and the sense that somehow the suffering of the Negro, which is an innocent suffering, is clearly identifiable with Jesus. Well, I mean, I think this whole motif is very significant in terms of the way in which Martin Luther King, Jr. found a ripe audience.
Warren: Now, this ripe audience though – just as a question, not a statement, must have this concept of Christian suffering as being redemptive. Transferred to a Christian suffering, which is not passive, though redemptive, but redemptive through action –
Lawson: Yes – redemptive through getting engaged with the cause of the suffering, with the evil system.
Warren: That’s a real difference?
Lawson: Oh, yes, very definitely, right.
Warren: How much has influence of Hindu philosophy been on you, Mr. Lawson? Can we talk about that a little bit? Your experience in that?
Lawson: Me, personally, it’s had very little influence. The way in which I have been influenced at all from India, would be, of course, in the study of Gandhi and in the way in which he tried to develop the force of the whole Sutti-Aghraha movement in India and in South Africa. Now, even much of this, however, has come through the eyes of people like E. Stanley Jones, the Methodist missionary, who lived for so many years in India and was an intimate friend of Gandhi, who wrote one of the best books, in fact, on Gandhi. In other words, even my understanding of Gandhi very often has come from, you know, secondhand. Now, from my own personal study of Gandhi and reading his own books and writings, I am quite convinced that Gandhi cannot be understood in primarily Hindu terms. He’s got to be understood in terms of the nineteenth century education he received as a person – the influence of, in which he admitted himself, the great influence very early in South Africa, of the New Testament – in particularly, he said, the Sermon on the Mount – the influence of some of the men who – of some of the people who flocked to Gandhi very early in his life – men like C.F. Andrews, who was an Anglican missionary to India, and who is known in India today even as C.F.A. – Christ’s Faithful Apostle. Andrews was a man who took radically, the harsh demands of the New Testament – turn the other cheek, love ye the enemy. E. Stanley Jones also takes these demands rather hard, radically – and both of these men have something like a forty-year personal relationship with Gandhi. So, I see this influence as a much larger influence on my own personal thinking – of course, then, the other thing. I was weaned on the Bible and the New Testament, in particular, and it is from the New Testament perspective that I first began to accept the teachings of my parents in this whole area.
Warren: How much do you think is communicable of this – of non-violence in this perspective? To the masses – black or white – Negro or non-Negro?
Lawson: I think a tremendous amount of it. Now, I have held workshops in almost every state in the South – workshops in non-violence, to all kinds of groups from sophisticated, integrated groups, college groups, university groups, to very unsophisticated people in the delta of Mississippi – all Negro groups, in – I don’t vary in terms of the ideas – I vary in terms of terminology. When I found – some of the most exciting experiences I’ve had in teaching and training have been in the delta of Mississippi, where I primarily spoke in Biblical terms and used Biblical illustrations and Biblical stories and myths to illustrate and document the whole idea of Christian non-violence. And found people who were functionally illiterate, exceedingly responsive, and aware of this fact. I’ve had people say to me, “Reverend Lawson, I’ve always felt that the only way to change this situation, or to change what we have to put up with, is through Christian love, or through what Christ talked about”. Something like – a statement like this has been very frequent.
Warren: There have been some reports, how accurate I don’t know, although one of them comes to me from an eye witness, that when the riots started in Birmingham, you see, after the bombing, that there was a fundamental shock to the non-violent leadership there. This was something that seemed to be outside of prediction. They felt a shock too – that something here was working which was outside their whole concept of a situation. Do you know anything about this? Were you there, by the way, at that time?
Lawson: No. Not when – I went in –
Warren: When the bombing occurred?
Lawson: No, I was not there, at the time of the bombing.
Warren: Now – excuse me – one thing that is attributed – and I can’t remember where. I have a note of it and it – I know I have a documentation – is attributed anyway to, I think, Mr. Walker. I said, I think it was to him – that he said, “But these aren’t our people”. That these – this – the mob started ________ the Negro mob did the – but, the explosion of violence there, the undirected, spontaneous explosion of violence.
Lawson: Well, now, this did not – this certainly did not surprise me. That this had happened, and I’m not sure about about other leaders – I have not heard any of them mention this, and I was with most of them just this past weekend – Thursday, Friday, Saturday, and I have not heard of any of them express shock or surprise at this. Now, one of the places where I wonder about this would be the fact that I know Jim Devill stayed in Birmingham through all of this period, while many of the rest of us were going in and out because of churches and whatnot, but Jim, once Jim got there, I understand, he stayed there literally, throughout –
Warren: Is he there now?
Lawson: He was there – he left this meeting we were in Saturday to go back to Birmingham and he’s using it as a kind of a base for work throughout the State. Now, Jim knows from our experience in Nashville that we were able to know when, in a sense, the natives were restless in terms of violence – because we got the reports from varying kinds of people – from labor people, from taxicab people, and just simply from ordinary people in the streets in the sections of the city where violence could occur, where people would come for violence. So, that we could predict – we could predict the possibilities of violence. So I would have the very real feeling that Jim never would have been alert to this. Now – he may have been – there may have been some surprise at the extent to which the Negroes were disillusioned, but certainly, all of us knew in going to Birmingham that the Negro there had been taking dynamiting, spontaneous violence from policemen, intimidation of many, many kinds, from people in that area – and they had been taking this for any number of years. And, I think that all of us would have said, “Well, we know that Birmingham is a city of violence, and we know full well that a non-violent campaign in Birmingham is not going to be like anything else.
Warren: I don’t know how to interpret this. I’ve had some long conversations with Mr. Evers, Charles Evers, one of our long recorded sessions – as a matter of fact the only really long recording. He said that – I talked about non-violence and saying slaughter solves nothing, along this line you see. He was saying Birmingham is a disaster. We have closed the line – lost the lines of communication, to use his phrase, for years to come.
Lawson: Who said that?
Warren: Mr. Evers.
Lawson: In Jackson?
Lawson: He just doesn’t know what he’s talking about.
Warren: Well, I don’t know – I oughtn’t to try to start a debate between you, but I was puzzled by it and I played this back to myself, you see, when I got home, and he had attached Birmingham to, he said, a disaster. His exact words.
Lawson: I do not understand –
Warren: I don’t follow this – I want to follow this – I want to explore this a little bit, if you can – I thought as a matter of setting you and Mr. Evers at loggerheads, that’s not the point – it’s expressing an interpretation of the event, you see.
Lawson: Yes, right, right. Now, of course, it should be said that Charles Evers is not a proponent of the non-violent approach.
Warren: He told me – he said that he is.
Lawson: Well, but – I would like to say a couple of things about this –
Warren: Yes, please.
Lawson: Number 1 – he is brand-new in the movement, and in the field in Jackson, Mississippi. Number 2 – he has weapons in his own house.
Warren: I don’t much blame him.
Lawson: For protection. Well, you know, I’m not putting the blame on ________ - but most of us who are involved in this business, do not – including one man, at least two women rather, that I know of in Mississippi – or more than that, but I’m just saying two key men, and one of them is in Jackson – whose lives are definitely marked lives, and they know it and we know it.
Warren: Is Moses one of those?
Lawson: Moses is certainly one of those.
Warren: I would say surely.
Lawson: Moses ins one of them, and Ed King in Jackson, Mississippi, is another man – and certainly his life is a marked life, and he carries no weapon around with him, or has none in his home. Now, the point I’m making is this – that those of us who are proponents of the non-violent approach, if we had guns, we’ve gotten rid of them.
Warren: You have made a thorough policy then – and have no – admit no exceptions.
Lawson: Yes, certainly. And we know too many people, you see, in the movement today, who have given up their weapons, even those who had a hunting gun, you know, and went out occasionally to find a rabbit, have gotten rid of their hunting gun. So, then the third thing I would say is I’m not certain how often, how much Charles Evers has been into Birmingham. I’ve not seen him there myself. I am certain he may have gone in this past fall, perhaps, or the winter for speeches, or something, but now, let’s say this. We were just talking this past weekend, that in one real way there is more genuine communication in Birmingham today than there was a year ago.
Warren: Explain that, will you please sir?
Lawson: Well, I’m thinking for an example of one doctor, who because of the Birmingham campaign has decided to give leadership in the white community for helping Birmingham to break through some of the problems of segregation in Birmingham.
Warren: This is a white doctor?
Lawson: This is a white doctor, I’m talking about. I’m thinking of a Dean of a school in Birmingham, who has taken the initiative himself to try to bring groups of Negroes and whites together, for the purpose of having frank conversations.
Warren: Is that Birmingham Southern?
Lawson: Birmingham Southern. I’m thinking, for example, of the President of Millsaps College – not Millsaps College, but of Miles College in Birmingham, and I’d ________ that Dean of the University, that paper shouldn’t be public –
Warren: All right. You can check into that.
Lawson: Yes, the President of Miles College, who in the last year and a half, has gotten more and more involved in frank confrontation with white persons in the city of Birmingham.
Warren: This is the end of tape 2 with Mr. Lawson. Continue on to 3.
[These digitized texts are based upon 1964 typed transcripts of Robert Penn Warren’s original interviews. Errors in the original transcripts have not been corrected. To ensure accuracy, researchers should consult the audio recordings available on this site.]
ROBERT PENN WARREN REV. J.M. LAWSON 3/17/64
Warren: This is tape 3 with J.M. Lawson, continued. When I heard Dr. King in Bridgeport last week, he put great emphasis on the philosophy of personal responsibility of the Negro to do whatever his job was well, you see. He said, “Street sweeper, be a street sweeper and you will abide with the angels”, this line. This, as far as I know, is relatively new in his treatment of these matters, isn’t it?
Lawson: No, actually it’s not.
Warren: Well, I’d like to – it’s not – isn’t it part of his whole – all the way through – on previous occasions it hadn’t appeared. On previous occasions I’d heard him speak.
Lawson: Yes, right. Well, now, he has generally emphasized this line in his college speaking.
Warren: I haven’t heard that.
Lawson: Yes, right – because in going to colleges and universities this has been the line that he has taken – of the need for the Negro to press forward – to see to it that he was qualified, to have the motive to do the best job possible, to seize the opportunities of the new day that was approaching.
Warren: And, to seek competition.
Warren: Rather than to avoid competition. The reason I’m asking this particular question is this: the old split between the Niagara movement and the N.A.A.C.P. in its early days, and the whole tradition of Tuskegee, where’s it’s question of self-improvement and to do the job well, as opposed to an aggressive action towards civil rights and surrounding maters. Now, there’s still, as far as I can make out, some real resistance to even mentioning, say, do the job well. I could say it to certain Negroes – as a white man saying it – this is taken as an insult. And I ask as a question, you see, as a question. Of course, if it’s being said by a Dr. King, that’s a little different – they’re bound to feel different, but still from some Negroes, it’s still taken by other Negroes as an affront. As far as I can make out – this is reported to me as such. This split of between say, on one hand, the activism and the Civil Rights approach and the question of personal career, personal achievement – that split – how real is that in terms of feeling, or resentments, or philosophy?
Lawson: Now, I resented this coming from those Negroes who are motivated primarily to see this as an alternative to the need for action, and this may be where the antagonism occurs. I know there are a lot of us, as an example, who resent certain educators who are always emphasizing this, but they emphasize it as being the way that contradicts the merging non-violence approach, whereas we in the non-violent approach are not trying to, you know, to therefore fill out the need for our being able to participate and compete in a total economy. But, what we’re saying is that instead, that no matter how well qualified we are, we’ve got to change the attitude and the structures of our society in order to permit this moving in competition into an open society.
Warren: That is, you accept that there’s no such thing as a mystique, or magic of Civil Rights, or anything else. Is that it?
Warren: That responsibility increases and doesn’t decrease.
Lawson: Exactly, and therefore, for example, we know from both practical experience and from our overall concern that there are far too many opportunities now that are available that the educational pattern have not prepared Negro young people – say, we’ve had this comment – time after time here in certain situations here in Memphis. Now, still these principles, and just recently they did this, throw back at us, well, we’ve got to encourage a student to make the best – well, they’re not making the best of themselves now. I mean, and the school is not helping them to. I get students all the time for counseling, who tell me they have been advised in the school system to move down one channel because the doors are closed to them in the channel in which they are interested in. Well, that kind of thinking has got to be eliminated.
Warren: Have you read the controversy between Irving Howe and Ralph Ellison? It involves something of this – Irving Howe in Descent last Fall and two long articles by Ralph Ellison in the New Leader, the last one being February 4.
Lawson: No, I’ve not seen those.
Warren: It’s on the same general point. Ralph takes it’s being attacked, whatever cult, he’s not on picket lines – he’s writing novels, as a trailer therefore it’s not like Richard Wright, not like, you see, others. And it revolves around the question of the personal role, the personal vocation. And, it’s a very eloquent piece by Ralph – or piece _______ - wonderful piece of – he finally says as an aside that Irving Howe is like Bilbo. He’s trying to put him in his place, but he, Irving Howe, has already assigned him to his place. Do you think that enough thought has been given to the actual vision of what society would be, given we pass the Civil Rights bill, given the mechanics tidied up? What vision do you have of that as a society, if you have accomplished the mechanisms, you see, of Civil Rights and a few things like that. Obvious legal matters. What remains to be done? What kind of vision beyond that could be dealt with?
Lawson: Well, in the first instance – we have not given enough time to defining what it is that we want, and then dispel this definition out in terms of the actual kinds of program that are possible to achieve it. I think that most of us in – particularly in the merging non-violent movement, recognize this failure. It’s not a failure of lack of interest, rather, - as much as it is, rather a failure in the – in time, too involved at this moment in the growth of the movement to really get involved in the kind, some of the study that is necessary to working out this vision. Now, even if, though, we get the machinery that is necessary, most of us have another stage in terms of the non-violent approach, and that’s the stage that we call the follow-up. It will be necessary, then, for many groups and for many of us even in the movement, in the non-violent movement itself, to program follow-up – to make certain then that the machinery gets into high gear and then, that some of the problems that will come as that machinery gets to operating, that some of these problems are going to be met openly. Now, we are already talking about what can be done to make certain that once the Civil Rights bill has been passed, that that is going to be carried out. In fact, this weekend, there was a fair amount of conversation on follow-up campaigns, to the Civil Rights bill.
Warren: That’s implementation.
Lawson: Implementation, yes.
Warren: I’m thinking beyond implementation. I’m assuming that it can be enforced, you know, by all legal – what about your attitude toward quote “the white liberal” – close quote. This is involved somehow in that long-range question – has the white man more or less good will, you know.
Lawson: Right. Well, I would think it’s all according to what happens to the liberal over the next decade. We’ve gotten into many situations in which some of us feel, at least, that the white liberal simply has not kept up with the times – the moral imperatives of the times.
Warren: In what sense, now?
Lawson: Well, a – just – a quick – a good example of this is the Chancellor of Vanderbilt University has long been know as a fine moderate, and not only that, he certainly has done a major job –
Lawson: Blanscom – at the point of Vanderbilt University, in terms of seeing to it that it would become a topnotch university, and working in this direction he was known as a liberal and not a – but – he was a liberal in a sense – on his own terms. And, the coming in of the non-violent movement, in spite of the warning from Montgomery and Martin Luther King, back in 1955, you see, left him way behind.
Warren: What about something else. Not say, failures like that, of the white man, who happens to be, say, a retarded liberal, but the notion that it shouldn’t be a white man’s job at all to mix into these things, you see; the repudiation of the liberal, which is widespread, you know. It can be everything from the attacks on Jack Greenburg to the attacks – we want no white man to mix into this.
Lawson: Well, this is why – this is widespread.
Warren: Heavy documentation on this, of course.
Lawson: This is widespread, primarily among Northern Negro, let’s say, radical elements, using the term radical in the sense of being further away from, say, an N.A.A.C.P. position, or the non-violent movement. Those of us in the non-violent movement recognize that in order to achieve the kind of society we want, we must have allies – the Negro is only ten percent of America. We have got to have people from labor, we’ve got to have people from the political structures of America and we’ve got to have people from all categories of life – from the churches, who are going to want to have an America that means a larger, purer kind of Democratic society. This cannot be done by the Negro – we all have to do it together. And, so, those of us in the non-violent movement repudiate any effort to say that the white liberal, and the white man, has no role to play. On the contrary, many of us work assiduously in order to help white people assume their rightful role and assume the kind of role they can play better than anyone else can play in many instances.
Warren: There’s another question – leave this matter for the future. We know the old problem, mentioned as far as I know first by DuBois and many times since, of the split in the Negro psyche. On the one hand the pull toward a Negro tradition, a Negro culture, a Negro world – the black Mystique – all of this. On the other hand, the pull toward a complete integration with the Western European cultural history and the Judeo-Christian philosophy and religion. Now, of course, to some people this is not a problem, but to some people it is a problem. How do you react to that question – do you feel it’s a real question, a real option? A real split?
Lawson: Well, I think it’s a real question and very clearly, well documented from the whole – from the effort of sociology over the last fifty, seventy-five years in the United States. Now, the point is, though, whether or not, it is an issue that gains emphasis primarily because of our American society at large being a rejecting society and a hostile society towards the Negro.
Warren: You mean if segregation were formally abolished and Civil Rights literally enforced, this issue would cease to be an issue in the sense it is now an issue – is that it?
Lawson: It would cease to be an issue as it now is. It would still be an issue in the sense that you will – there will be still a need to continue to work on it, but what I mean is that once the invitation is extended to the Negro that you are an American – be an American – then you’ll find that with all these happenings, you see, that this is much less of a problem for the Negro – in one respect, in fact, you can say that there has been no dualism in the Negro at certain points. For an example – in terms of loyalty to the United States, there has been no dualism. In terms of the idea – the idea that we have maintained ourselves that we are Americans and know nothing else about America, there’s been no dualism. And, this is one reason why your black nationalism groups have never had any, you know, large sway or meaning in the United States, simply because the Negro in America has felt himself to be an American – and has had a basic loyalty to our country. But the dual – the second culture, or the sub-culture that he has developed has been primarily because the major culture has constantly sought to reject him, or keep him away from it.
Warren: I’ve heard one white man say this – a man who is sincere and honest and decent. He said, “I feel now, after certain reading and certain contacts that I am rejected in my efforts to be honest, rejected by a large segment of even Negroes he does not know, you see, and drawn back about this. I’m – I’m not going to try to please any more – I’m going to try to be on my conscience. Of course, how can you please ten different people at - ? Of course, what he’s – he’s speaking for a segment, a white segment he’s speaking for?
Lawson: Um, hum. I have noticed among some of my own friends and in traveling, a growing frustration among white people at this point. Now, I think that a part of this is, of course, because the Negro is increasingly losing his pretension about himself and about the problem he faces.
Warren: What kind of pretension?
Lawson: Well, for far too long – the best example of this would be – the meeting I just came from was a meeting on school dropouts and it’s gone on since 9:30 this morning. There is at least one Negro sociologist in the group of the major panel, and yet all morning long we’ve talked about the school drop-out program, without the whole question of the relationship of this to segregation and/or the relationship of this to the Negro in this whole problem. This was not mentioned this morning at all. Now, some of us in Memphis recognize that we’ve had a lot of interracial contacts going on in Memphis, but without the Negro speaking the truth in love – about the serious way that he feels personally, and also in the way he feels about the need for a changing city. Now, this point – increasingly Negroes, however, are losing this pretension and he’s beginning more and more present it, so that you can say that for the first time there are larger liberals who are hearing the real thoughts of Negroes. Now, I happen to think this –
Warren: That’s wonderful. That’s part of it clearly. That’s clearly part of it.
Lawson: Yes, I think this is wonderful in the sense that there’s a need for us to be honest, before we come to the place of genuine understanding, so that I think that this frustration in part comes out of the changing form of communication that is going on. The changing form – which, of course, I relish and glory in because I think it’s necessary. So that – I, now, the only other thing that needs to be said is that the white liberal has in the past been able to give the mainline leadership for the Civil Rights movement – I mean the whole pattern of legal – using the ordinary procedures of our society, comes from of course, in a sense, the middle class idea that we’ve got a problem – we go to the channels where the problem can be solved. Now, we’re being confronted with a thesis that says that these channels cannot really be challenged from within. They have to be challenged from without. In other words, -
Warren: An anomaly of the extra-legalistic approach.
Lawson: Yes, right. The non-violent approach, which says, just for an example, the issue is not a legal issue. It’s a moral issue, therefore it has to be faced on moral ground. Well this means then, that the discussions of, you know, prior to ten years ago, are taking on another dimension which we’ve not been used to having in our discussion. And this, undoubtedly is causing frustration. Now, may I point this out though – that’s it’s not simply causing frustration among white liberals. It’s causing tremendous frustrations among Negro liberal – liberals – or Negro Civil Rights leaders. In other words, that this crisis that we find ourselves in, is a crisis of leadership, a crisis of the past way in which we have conducted this whole problem. It is a judgment of the ways in which Negro leaders and white leaders have acted together. It is also –
Warren: It is also a desert on the fact of a lack of political leadership for Negroes – a contempt of political leadership itself – some backlash from that?
Lawson: If this is true, in the sense that – and an example, Chicago, political leadership for the Negro was selected by the white political machinery –
Warren: It was non-functional.
Lawson: Yes. It was not leadership that grew out of the vote, let us say, out of the will of the Negro people. I think you see this crisis very clearly in the Chicago scene.
Warren: Yes, you could say that.
Lawson: It’s all over the place, in fact, right now. Where the political leadership of the Negro is that belonging to the machinery.
Warren: Stop, stop, stop. This is the end of tape – This is the end of the interview with Reverend J.M. Lawson, no more on this tape.
Original materials provided by the University of Kentucky and Yale University libraries and digitized with the permission of the Warren estate. Digital archive created and designed by the Robert Penn Warren Center for the Humanities at Vanderbilt University.