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November 15, 2018
In The News

Civil rights legend James Lawson may soon have one of the nation’s highest civilian awards to add to the collection of honors for his integral role in shaping the tone and tenor of the U.S. Civil Rights Movement.

Congressman Ro Khanna, (D-Calif.), introduced legislation on Wednesday to award the Congressional Gold Medal to Lawson, who is credited with instilling Mohandas Gandhi’s nonviolent resistance techniques and principles into the movement in the 1950s and ‘60s.

“The lessons he brought from Gandhi’s nonviolent movement not only strengthened the Civil Rights movement here in America but demonstrated the interconnected nature of the struggles of oppressed people around the world,” said Khanna, who vowed to promote the measure’s passage. Khanna’s late grandfather was imprisoned with Gandhi during the movement for India’s independence from British rule.

Georgia Congressman John Lewis recalls his days in the Civil Rights movement during Capitol Hill event honoring the Rev. James Lawson (seated, center). Rep. Emanuel Cleaver (D-Mo.) sits to Lawson’s right and Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.) is on his left. All three congressmen are sponsors of legislation to award the Congressional Gold Medal to Lawson.

At a Wednesday morning event to unveil the resolution, House Assistant Minority Leader Jim Clyburn, (D-S.C.), extolled Lawson’s contributions, calling congressional recognition “long overdue.” Clyburn is among the 27 House Democrats who are co-sponsoring the measure.

Rep. John Lewis, (D-Ga.), one of the country’s most respected surviving civil rights icons, called Lawson “the architect of the civil rights movement.”

Rep. Barbara Lee, (D-Calif.), noted that Lawson continues to promote nonviolent principles all these years later.  Through his eponymous institute, Lawson, who turned 90 in September, still leads workshops for activists and organizers committed to nonviolent action.

“All of us can learn from Rev. Lawson’s work to combat racism, stop senseless wars, and end the scourge of poverty,” Lee said.

After studying Mohandas Gandhi’s nonviolent strategies in India in the early 1950s, Lawson returned to the U.S. in 1955 and was soon tapped by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., to teach Gandhian principles to civil rights activists.  King once referred to Lawson as the “leading theorist and strategist of nonviolence in the world.”

Lawson counseled the nine African American teenagers in Little Rock who faced hostile crowds as they desegregated Central High School in 1957.  His instruction empowered college students in Nashville, Tenn., to peacefully withstand the abuse, threats and harassment rained upon them as they desegregated variety store lunch counters in 1960. He also trained the storied Freedom Riders before they set out on their mission to face down segregationists and register black voters in the Deep South.

Along with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the Congressional Gold Medal is the U.S. government’s most prestigious non-military award. The list of recipients includes some of the country’s most celebrated figures – among them, Montgomery bus boycott protagonist Rosa Parks, boxer Joe Louis, philanthropist George Peabody, industrialist Cornelius Vanderbilt, composers George and Ira Gershwin, former U.S. attorney general and presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy, entertainer Frank Sinatra, Olympian Jesse Owens, Martin and Coretta Scott King, and the Native American code talkers of World Wars I and II.

ICNC congratulates our friend, the Reverend Jim Lawson, in his nomination for this coveted and much-deserved award.

We are proud to have helped organize the first two James Lawson Institutes in 2013 and 2014, and to have supported subsequent sessions.

We were also honored by Reverend Lawson’s kind remarks about ICNC at Wednesday’s morning celebratory event on Capitol Hill, where he thanked ICNC Founder Dr. Peter Ackerman and ICNC President Hardy Merriman, and lauded the book A Force More Powerful by Dr. Ackerman and Jack DuVall, an acclaimed account about key nonviolent resistance movements of the 20th century.  Notably, the book also has an award-winning companion film (steamable for free online) by the same name, which tells the story of the Nashville lunch-counter sit-ins in 1960 that were organized by Lawson, as well as other accounts of nonviolent campaigns.

ICNC is inspired by Rev. Lawson’s historic contributions to the betterment of American life. He epitomizes the spirit and purpose of the Congressional Gold Medal.

Twice this year, ICNC has posted articles about and interviews with Rev. Lawson regarding his work. We encourage you to revisit them for a dose of history and inspiration.