James Lawson is a veteran civil rights crusader who once worked alongside of Martin Luther King Jr. Photo by Michael Swan

Religion must ‘rediscover that power’ to lead change, veteran civil rights crusader says

  • November 14, 2018

As Americans learned how Washington was realigned by the Nov. 6 mid-term elections, the elder statesman of the American civil rights movement was in Toronto calling President Donald Trump “an icon of chaos” and urging Canadians to resist “plantation capitalism” being pushed by American nationalists.

James Lawson, the Methodist minister who worked alongside of Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. organizing the Freedom Riders in the American South in the 1950s and ’60s, delivered a lecture at the University of St. Michael’s College Nov. 7, recalling the U.S. history of non-violent civil rights protest and asking “Where do we go from here: chaos or community?” 

“It does not surprise me that Trump has become the icon of chaos,” he told a small audience of faculty and students from St. Michael’s and Emmanuel College, which co-sponsored the event.

Canada and European nations represent alternatives to an exploitive, rapacious and Darwinian form of corporate capitalism, Lawson told his audience.

“You represent a great hope for the people of the United States,” he said. “You need to push the United States, not join…. The forces of change in the United States need your concrete help.”

Lawson recalled the history of the civil rights movement as a Christian movement led by the churches.

“It came in large measure out of the churches,” he said. “In almost every case there were clergy who led campaigns.”

Lawson himself was expelled from Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tenn., in 1960 because of his civil rights work. He completed his Bachelor of Sacred Theology at the Jesuit faculty of theology in Boston College.

Lawson urged his Canadian audience to use the power of religion on behalf of poor people — the victims of “plantation capitalism” — steamrollered by political powers and serving the interests of big business. 

“The Church is not helpless against political and social and cultural forces that have demonic origins, that are hurting people,” he said. “We who are Christian have a power — the power of love, the power of truth, the power of the wonder and beauty and mystery of life itself…. Religion needs to rediscover that power.”

Lawson was in Toronto for the Parliament of the World’s Religions, a gathering of nearly 10,000 people from as many as 200 religious and spiritual traditions and 80 countries. The mostly liberal convention, dominated by Americans, was filled with commentary on the Trump presidency.

Retired Canadian Senator Douglas Roche called the Trump administration “the last gasp of the slaveholders.” Jaideep Singh, co-founder of the Sikh American Legal Defense and Education Fund, said the Trump presidency had “triggered fears of discrimination among Christians.”

Lawson had a few choice words for populist politicians, but chose to concentrate the majority of his lecture on the history of non-violence in the civil rights movement.

“I want to commend to you that non-violent movement in the United States,” he said. “You and I need to acknowledge as people of faith that forces for economic domination, political domination and military domination are more powerful now than ever before.”

First-year social science student Rachel Zach was inspired by Lawson’s message about “the forces of love being more important than the forces of hate.” The idea that a non-violent movement can stand up to an entrenched culture of racism and win was a revelation for the young student.

“If you counter their hate with your hate, you’re trying to defeat them at their own game,” Zach said. “You’ve got to be better than that.”

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