Reverend James Lawson, an ordained United Methodist minister and one of the most significant leaders of the Civil Rights Movement, spoke to MTS students and community members at Lindenwood Christian Church on April 3rd, 2018, one day before Memphis will commemorate the 50th anniversary of Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s assassination here.
Between 1958 and 1960, Lawson led Nashville-area workshops on nonviolent tactics. He helped organize the 1960 lunch counter sit-ins, the 1961 Freedom Rides, and the James Meredith march in Mississippi. He also helped organize the SNCC in Raleigh, North Carolina, the 1963 SCLC Birmingham Campaign, and was the chair of the 1968 strategy committee for the Memphis Sanitation Worker’s strike.
In his speech, Rev. Lawson said he was not a “civil rights person.” Instead, he said, “I was called by eternity to be a pastor of people.” Speaking on the theme of Following Jesus Today, Lawson defined his own life as a “pursuit of God’s love, God’s word, and God’s purpose, as revealed in the scripture.”
That pursuit has led Lawson to a vision of Christian faith that dismantles the racist and sexist structures of oppression.
“There are millions of Christians around the world whose agenda is not the agenda of Congress, the President, or the Bank of America,” Lawson said. “Their agenda–our agenda–is to nurture our families, nurture the neighborhoods around us, and dismantle the spiritual forces of wickedness.”
Lawson carries his vision of dismantling oppressive systems and the inherently political nature of the scriptures into contemporary debates: “There are no people in the world who are illegal in the eyes of God. There are no undocumented people. They have the documentation of creation.”
To follow Jesus today, Lawson urged his attentive audience to study the scriptures, to see people as children of God, to refuse to despise any person, and to be prepared to take risks.
“I have a hard time being eighty-nine years old, because I didn’t expect to live this long. My friend Martin, of course, was killed–assassinated here.”
Lawson ended his speech defining our present moment: “This is a great place to be in the journey. Far from the kingdom of God, but striving nonetheless.”
After his speech, Lawson signs copies of Congressman John Lewis’ book March, in which Lawson is a central character.
Lawson’s visit to MTS was sponsored by the Methodist House of Studies.