The Nonviolent Resistance Movement


James Lawson arrested on May 24, 1961. Photo courtesy of

James Lawson arrested on May 24, 1961. Photo courtesy of

A recent blockbuster film, The Butler, is about an African American man, Cecil Gaines, who serves eight presidents during his career as a White House Butler. The film takes place during a time of national unrest, covering such topics as the Vietnam War and the Civil Rights Movement. One of the most difficult scenes to watch is when Cecil’s son has volunteered to join the Nashville Student Movement at the Woolworth’s counter sit-in in 1960. These brave students chose to sit at an all-White counter and ask for service at a time when most everything in the town of Greensboro, North Carolina was segregated. In preparation for this movement, students were forced to practice nonviolent resistance. As shown in the film, the students are taught how to remain peaceful while being verbally and physically harassed by their peers. These sit-ins will forever be a landmark in the civil rights protests of the 1950s and 1960s.

So now you’re wondering “who is the man in the mug shot above, and what does he have to do with Oprah Winfrey and The Butler?” Reverend James Lawson Jr. is one of the leading advocates and teachers of the Civil Rights Movement, and specifically the practice of nonviolent resistance to racism. Lawson was born in 1928. His father and grandfather were both Methodist ministers, and Lawson received his local preacher’s license in 1947, the same year he graduated High School. While a freshman at college in Ohio, he joined the Fellowship of Reconciliation (FOR) and the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), two of America’s oldest pacifist organizations. Following the principles of both organizations, he declared himself a conscientious objector, and refused to report for the draft in 1951. As a result, he was sentenced to three years in prison. However, this is just the start of Lawson’s Civil Rights career.

After leaving prison, he spent three years in India as a Methodist missionary. During this time he studied satyagraha, the principles of nonviolence created by Mohandas Gandhi. While in India, Lawson heard about the Montgomery bus boycott that was taking place in Alabama in 1955. Lawson remarked that those who participated in the initial nonviolent movement sent a wave of hope and aspiration around the world. Soon after returned to the United States, he was introduced to Martin Luther King Jr. who urged Lawson to move to the South and share his teaching methods.

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