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LOS ANGELES TIMES INTERVIEW

James Lawson

Standing Up for Rev. King's Beliefs -- and His Convicted Killer

January 19, 1997|Gayle Pollard Terry | Gayle Pollard Terry is an editorial writer for The Times. She interviewed James M. Lawson Jr. in his office at Holman United Methodist Church in the Adams-Crenshaw section of Los Angeles

Most Americans may view the civil-rights movement as a distant memory revisited nostalgically on the national Martin Luther King Jr. holiday, but James M. Lawson Jr., veteran of the movement and longtime pastor of Holman United Methodist Church, is still orchestrating nonviolent assaults on racism, poverty and injustice. His local crusade now is advocating for the proposed "living wage," which, if passed by the City Council, would mandate pay increases and provide benefits for low-wage workers employed via certain city contracts. He is also fighting for a white man he believes was wrongfully convicted of a murder--the assassination of his friend and fellow minister, King.

Though Lawson has served as a pastor in Los Angeles for more than two decades, he remains best-known for his leadership of disciplined, nonviolent direct actions such as the Nashville sit-ins, the Freedom Rides and the Memphis sanitation workers strike--milestones in the violent struggle for black equality. In 1968, Lawson invited King to Memphis, where he was assassinated on April 4. James Earl Ray pleaded guilty. He remains in prison, Lawson believes unjustly.

Lawson first read about King in an article on the 1955 Montgomery bus boycott in the Nagpur (India) Times, where the young Methodist missionary studied the teachings of Gandhi, taught and coached. He met King in 1957, while he was a theology student at Oberlin College in Ohio. King invited him to bring his commitment to nonviolence to the South. Lawson did, and the rest is history.

The son and grandson of Methodist ministers--escaped slaves that traveled the Underground Railroad--Lawson grew up in Massillon, Ohio, where his father was a Methodist pastor. In fourth grade, Lawson decided fighting nonviolently was a better way than using his fists in anger, even when he was called vicious names and racial slurs. When he grew older, during World War II, Lawson held to this belief and was jailed as a conscientious objector--which proved invaluable when he later taught young civil rights protesters how to endure life behind bars.

Now 68, Lawson and his wife, Dorothy, have raised three sons. A jazz and classical music fan, he reads theology books, novels and mysteries--including a couple by President Bill Clinton's favorite mystery writer, Walter Mosley. Lawson is no fan of Clinton, whose inauguration just happens to fall on the King holiday tomorrow. When the president is taking his oath of office, Lawson plans to meet with other progressive religious leaders at Holman, and attend a gathering in Orange County that will emphasize community diversity and unity. Next month, he plans to return to Memphis for a court hearing during which Ray's lawyer will fight to reopen his case.

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Question: You experienced racism in the South when it was physical and brutal. How has it changed?

Answer: The way some of us in the King movement have put it is: "Everything has changed and nothing has changed." Whether or not the term "progress" is the best word, yes, change has occurred. At the same time it has to be understood that racism has also developed nuances. Racism is now a 15th-generation affair rather than a first-generation affair. History has moved so this is not now 1750 or 1810. It's now 1997. It is foolish to think, therefore, that any social, cultural affair or any language has remained the same. Things have changed.

As an illustration, I was welcomed back to Vanderbilt University in 1996, as the distinguished alumnus of the School of Theology. . . . I was expelled in February of 1960, against the will of the faculty, by the trustees for my participation and organization of the sit-in campaign in Nashville.

Q: What are some current campaigns that stem from Dr. King's legacy?

A: The "living wage" in Los Angeles and around the country would clearly be something that King would support. He died, after all, during a sanitation strike in Memphis. And, he told me on one occasion, when I picked him up at the airport, "Jim, you're doing just what I expect to do with the poor people's campaign." The Memphis strike was about economic gain on behalf of workers. They were poor though they were workers. They never got a decent wage.

The living wage has attracted the attention of a broad spectrum of clergy, precisely because we think it is a form of activism that is essential, and reflects the best tradition of religious activism.

Q: You were part of the anti-209 campaign. Were you surprised it passed?

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