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Civil Rights Icon James Lawson Provides Living History At CSUN PDF Print E-mail
Written by San Fernando Valley Sun   
Thursday, 13 February 2014 04:09


For those who have grown up through historical and lifechanging events, it’s not enough to have just lived through them. The accuracy of the information and lessons learned must continually be handed down to succeeding generations so it can involve and enlighten them.

Acclaimed civil rights leader the Rev. James Lawson is doing just that, spending this spring teaching at California State University, Northridge and hoping to inspire students to follow the words of author Robert Louis Stevenson: “To be what you are capable of becoming what you can become is the sole end of life!” More than 40 students from a variety of disciplines are studying the uses of nonviolence in the 20th and 21st centuries around the globe in Lawson’s course, “Nonviolent Struggles, Civil Rights and Social Change.”

Sponsored by CSUN’s Civil Discourse and Social Change Initiative, the course is being offered for the fourth year in a row. “I hope students will wrestle with their own concepts of who they are and their humanness,” said Lawson. “To see themselves as the zenith of creation as living creatures that stimulate the meaning of life itself and how they pursue — that is what I expect.”

The class focuses on various nonviolent movements around the globe, including the Russian Revolution, Mohandas Gandhi’s work in India, the Polish rebellion under the Nazi regime and the 1960s civil rights movement in the United States, which will be taught from Lawson’s own historical perspective. Students will be asked to reflect on the ways violence works as a source of oppression.

“This generation could become the generation that begins to help our nation de-escalate from the mythology of violence,” Lawson said. Lawson’s class is one of several opportunities, including a campus-wide lecture by Lawson, for students to learn about the power of activism. “Following the CSU student protests against tuition increases in 2010, we organized the initiative to address activism and social change on campus,” said communication studies professor Kathryn Sorrells, codirector of the initiative.

“Upon hearing the Rev. Lawson was returning to L.A. from a visiting scholar position at Vanderbilt University, we asked him if he would join us in our vision to create a campus committed to social justice. We were very pleased when he agreed.”

Lawson, born 85 years ago in Uniontown, PA, studied at Baldwin Wallace College in Berea, Ohio where he became active in two organizations seeking social change through non-violence — Fellowship Of Reconciliation (FOR) and the Congress Of Racial Equality (CORE). In 1951, after graduation, he declared himself a conscientious objector and refused to report to the draft, serving a 14-month prison term instead of seeking a student or ministerial deferment. He was a Methodist missionary in India, studying the nonviolent methods of resistance used by Gandhi and his followers.

He would enter the Graduate School of Theology at Oberlin College in Ohio, where he first met the late Dr. Martin Luther King, who convinced Lawson to move to the South and offer workshops on nonviolence resistance to black youth in Nashville, TN. Lawson later attended the Divinity School of Vanderbilt University (where he was kicked out in 1961 for his civil rights activism; university officials would formally apologize in 2006).

Lawson was a witness to — and a major player — in nearly every significant aspect of the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s, from voter registration to freedom bus rides to sit-ins at lunch counters and department stores. He moved to Los Angeles in 1974, and for many years served as pastor of Holman Methodist Church before his retirement in 1999.


The initiative aims to create a culture where social justice is a permanent part of the institutional composition by engendering a community of consciousness, academic engagement and advocacy.

Through research,”action, collaboration and creative imagination, the Civil Discourse and Social Change Initiative is forging on-the-ground partnerships with CSUN colleges, departments, students and community organizations to realize their vision of education as a human right. For Lawson, the need for such an initiative is imperative for higher education.

His goal in teaching at CSUN is to implement an exemplary community that practices what it preaches, utilizing dialogue over daggers to analyze problems and create resolutions. “I have learned so much through my association with the Rev. Lawson,” said Sorrells. “The vibrancy of his lived experience in such an important moment in history and his ability to transplant that into [students] lives today is a true benefit for all who enroll in his course and for those who attend his other lectures.”

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