Gandhi, Nonviolence, and the Civil Rights Movement

18 Apr

A recent NPR story covered Mohandas Gandhi’s early career and activism in South Africa. Gandhi originally went to South Africa to work as a lawyer but it was his experience with the segregated and racist system of apartheid that galvanized him into political action. He returned to India after twenty years with the methods of nonviolent protest that eventually would free India from colonial rule. Gandhi’s methods were later employed by the civil rights movement in the segregated South and were introduced, in large part, by Eyes on the Prize interviewee James Lawson.

Interview with James Lawson - Eyes on the Prize

Interview with James Lawson – Eyes on the Prize

Lawson had an interest in Gandhi’s life and work as a college student but it was when he traveled to Nagpur, India as a Methodist missionary that he became more interested employing the practice and principles of nonviolent resistance.

When Lawson returned to the States, Martin Luther King, Jr. asked him to come to the South and work with him in the civil rights movement. Lawson began studying at the Divinity School at Vanderbilt University and at the same time he began conducting nonviolence training workshops for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC).

Lawson spoke about these workshops in Nashville where he trained students and others who went on to be leaders in the movement, including Diane Nash, James Bevel, Bernard Lafayette, and C.T. Vivian.

This series was a sort of protracted series and we met weekly for much of September, October, November. And in that we tried to give people a very, a fairly, good view of nonviolence and we mixed that with role-playing of various kinds, and we mixed it with experiments they were to play, to carry out in their own personal lives. And then we also added to it the first series of forages into downtown to test which restaurants we would decide to work on and so, as I recall in November, everyone who attended the workshop was given the experience of going to an actual restaurant and sitting in…that was a part of our planning. So the workshops, role-playing, was often realistic. That is that we would set up confrontations in workshops where a person might get slapped or hit or knocked down and we would experiment, you know, we would help the person walk through how do you respond to this kind of hostile situation. So the role-playing was a part of it.

Lawson’s training and techniques for non-violent strategies were featured in Ain’t Scared of Your Jails (1960-1961), an episode that covered the student sit-in movement in Nashville. Some of the students in this campaign went on to found the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and played major roles in the Freedom Rides, Freedom Summer, and many other episodes.

The influence of the Nashville Movement was great, perhaps more so than any other single movement, with the exception of the Montgomery boycott. The reason for that was that we, as King said, we were a model movement. And we combined strategizing with learning and experimentation and struggle. We did not stop with the sit-in of 1960, we moved to theaters, we moved to bus station, train station, barber shop, we moved to mop up other restaurants in the community so for, a decade at least after 1960, that movement was continuing to be a very dynamic movement setting the pace all across the South for change. Then, in 1961, we determined that the violence in Alabama could not stop the Freedom Ride. So we immediately called Martin King and others and said we’re going to continue the ride from Anniston, Alabama to Birmingham and to Montgomery. 

Lawson went on to talk about how nonviolence is not a passive acceptance of a situation. He described nonviolence as a type of moral jiu-jitsu and how it was a practical strategy as well as an ethical issue,

I am faced with a hostile assailant who wants to break up the march and who wants to do me in. What do I do? Well, my practice has been to obey Jesus at that point, turn the other cheek. Well, people say, “Well, that’s passive,” but it’s not passive. Psychologically, it is an extreme weapon. I turn the other cheek. Now, it’s true the assailant may then sock me on that cheek as well. But it may also happen that the assailant does something else, that he is upset that instead of my using the fist against him I turn the other cheek. I have actually seen this happen in the midst of our desegregation of–in the Nashville movement, the desegregation of theaters, I was at the back of the march because at the back of the march the rabble-rousers would gather and throw Coke bottles at us, spit on us, and hit and kick as we would be moving away from the theaters back to the church. So I accosted a young man who was doing this. I was at the very last rank, and I would try to turn around and I, face him as often as I could. He was cussing me out. I turned once and I said to him, “Did your church teach you to talk like this?” He said, “They taught us segregation, though.” But I said, “Did they teach you to hit and spit and kick and cuss other human beings?” And he acted as though I was hitting him over the head with my fist. He stopped. I turned around to find where I was to keep moving in the right direction. I turned back around and he had disappeared through the crowd, and I never saw him again in theater demonstrations. So nonviolence does what Richard Gregg said, wrote rather. It causes people to be engaged in moral jiu-jitsu. They expect from you the hostile response that is conventional. They don’t get that; they get respect and they get resistance, and that turns them upside down. It is like the art of jiu-jitsu where you use the opponent’s strength against himself. He rushes at you, and instead of you putting up your resistance to stop him, you let him rush and you stick your foot out in front of him as he rushes by, so the nonviolence has that same practical capacity.

 All quotes from: —Interview with James Lawson conducted by Blackside, Inc. on December 2, 1985, for Eyes on the Prize: America’s Civil Rights Years (1954-1965). Washington University Libraries, Film and Media Archive, Henry Hampton Collection.


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