The events which were just about to take place first in Nashville and then throughout the Deep South had been set in motion some three years earlier in February 1957, when two talented young black ministers, both of them strongly affected by the teachings of Mohandas Gandhi, had met in Oberlin, Ohio. One of them, Martin Luther King, Jr., was already world famous, having led the successful Montgomery bus boycott which had begun in December 1955, thereby emerging as the best-known leader of a new generation of black ministers; a year earlier he had been named the head of a new organization, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, a group of young activist black ministers who intended to use the techniques of Christian nonviolence to challenge segregation throughout the South. The other minister, Jim Lawson, was unknown not only to the country at large but to the other leaders of what was already becoming known as the Movement, Jim Lawson had entered Oberlin College a few months earlier in order to get his master's degree in religious studies. His more traditional academic and ministerial career had been interrupted for the past four years, first by nearly a year spent in a federal prison as a conscientious objector, a young black ministerial student who had rejected his government's rationale for the Korean War and had refused to register for the draft; and then, after he had been released from the federal penitentiary, by three years studying and teaching as a Methodist missionary in India.
India had been a rich experience for Jim Lawson and had strengthened his belief in nonviolence as an instrument for social change, to be used eventually in the emerging civil rights struggle in the United States. Jim Lawson, son of a distinguished minister, was determined to be not just a minister but an activist minister, a man who used the church not merely to comfort the members of his congregation but to spread a social and political gospel as well.
In his last two years overseas Jim Lawson had felt a growing pull to return to the United States, a pull which began the moment he read in the Indian papers of developments in Montgomery, Alabama, where ordinary black citizens, led by a sophisticated, well-educated young minister named Martin Luther King, Jr., were putting nonviolent resistance to the most practical application imaginable. The more Jim Lawson read about the Montgomery bus strike, the more excited he became. The specific issue was the desegregation of the city's bus lines, but Jim Lawson understood immediately that it was not just the bus lines which were being challenged but the entire structure of segregation--in Montgomery and in every other city and town in the South. What was happening in Montgomery, he believed, was merely the first stage of what was going to be a long and difficult struggle. Reading about it in Nagpur, he knew it was time to go home.
What Martin King and his people had done in Montgomery represented a new and critical increment of change in what he viewed as a long historical process of the black struggle for equal rights in America. It was something Jim Lawson had long expected. Back when he had been in college and studying about Gandhi for the first time, he had read about the great Indian leader's meeting with Howard Thurman, probably the most distinguished black minister of his time. Thurman had always been fascinated by what was happening in India. He had written a short book called Jesus and the Disinherited, which was a reflection on Christ and racism in America. As their talks were ending Thurman had asked Gandhi what message he should take back to America, and the Indian had said that one of his great regrets was that he had not made nonviolence more visible throughout the world. But perhaps, he had suggested, some American black man would succeed where he had failed, because America offered such a formidable platform for the world. There it sat, Gandhi had said, a powerful modern nation, and yet it had its own domestic colonial oppression within. For the first time, reading about Martin Luther King in Nagpur, Lawson had sensed that this young minister in Montgomery was the black American whose coming Gandhi had first prophesied. (In that sense his views paralleled those of Glenn Smiley, who was to become one of Lawson's foremost mentors in a group called the Fellowship of Reconciliation, and who on meeting King in Montgomery had written of his chance of becoming a "Negro Gandhi.") Gandhi, Lawson came to believe, had shown in those talks with Thurman that he understood America better than America understood itself.
Martin Luther King and the men around him, Lawson believed, symbolized the rise of a new generation of black religious leaders. They were better educated than their predecessors, and more confident than them as well, because they were backed now by the moral authority of the Supreme Court of the United States, which in 1954 had ruled in Brown v. Board of Education. Theirs was nothing less than an appeal to the nation's white Christian conscience to redress age-old grievances. More, they were using the tactics employed by Gandhi himself in attaining independence for India, the very tactics which Lawson himself believed in.
As Jim Lawson readied himself to leave Nagpur and return to the United States he believed he saw his own future quite clearly. The three years in India had been everything he had wanted, and he had often felt that he was walking in Gandhi's footsteps. But there was also no doubt that because of his time there and his time in prison, he was in danger of falling behind his own schedule for getting both his advanced degrees as well as his pastorate. He would start by getting his master's at Oberlin in Ohio, a famous school with an unusually liberal faculty and a strong department of religion that was not far from his home in Massillon, Ohio. After Oberlin he intended to go on to Yale Divinity School for his doctoral studies. Then, properly credentialed, he would go to the South, where he could become an important part of the movement which had sprung up in Montgomery.
By chance, a few months after Jim Lawson had arrived at Oberlin in the fall of 1956, Martin Luther King was invited to speak there. The man behind the invitation was a young professor named Harvey Cox, himself at the beginning of a distinguished theological career and at the time the director of religious activities at Oberlin. Cox had heard King speak in Nashville a year earlier and had immediately decided that he ought to bring this remarkable man to the Oberlin campus. He had scheduled him for three appearances in one day: a noon assembly on "The Montgomery Story"; a second speech on Gandhian techniques, "Justice Without Violence," in the midafternoon; and finally a panel that night on "The New Negro in the New South." Despite (or because of) the fact that Oberlin was an extremely liberal place, there had been some debate over where King should speak; some faculty members were supportive of King's presence, but only as long as he spoke in a specifically religious setting; if too secular a setting were chosen it might imply that the school was inflicting religion on its students. In time a decision was made: King would make two of his three appearances at First Church, a local Congregational church. That seemed to be a worthy compromise and the liberal opposition soon died down. Still, Cox was utterly unprepared for what happened next. All morning chartered buses arrived from Cleveland and other surrounding cities and towns in Ohio, and large numbers of black people had filed into both the chapel and the local church. Clearly the word had gotten out all over Ohio, Cox realized, and he was amused by the irrelevance, indeed the foolishness of the faculty debate to which he had so recently been a party.
For Jim Lawson it was a particularly moving day. He was stunned by the size of the crowd and the emotion that these ordinary people brought to the church. Martin Luther King was everything he had hoped for, a brilliant speaker who was able to reach a vast variety of people. After King's first speech, Cox, who was the campus minister, had given a small informal luncheon for King in a private dining room at the school's cafeteria. Jim Lawson had become something of a favorite of Cox's, and he had been invited to the meal, a not inconsiderable honor for a new graduate student, but Cox was already impressed by the unusual inner force and drive of Jim Lawson and his commitment to nonviolence. He thought these two young men, who were almost exactly the same age--both of them twenty-eight, with Lawson four months older--should meet.
Lawson was impressed on that day by King's simplicity. He was already one of the most famous young men in America, for his face had graced the cover of almost every national magazine, and he could regularly be seen on the nightly fifteen-minute black-and-white network newscasts. Indeed if anything, his international fame was even greater in comparative terms than his fame in America, for the nonwhite world was not only more aware of the universality of his message than many of his fellow Americans but often more receptive to it. The rest of the world regarded King as a critically important new moral voice, a man with the requisite heroism and inner spiritual strength to go against the grain of racism in his native land.
King was clearly a remarkable speaker, Lawson thought: alternately cool and rational, and then impassioned and emotional. He had been, as he often was, extremely skillful that day in reaching both the university community and the black Baptists who had driven over to hear him. It was not that there was a little for everyone in his speech, Lawson thought; there was a lot for everyone in it. When the speech was over, Jim Lawson had gone to the luncheon and had found to his good fortune that most of the other guests were late, and he had about ten minutes alone with King. Martin King wore his fame and his burden lightly, Jim Lawson thought. He seemed simple and modest and open, far more obsessed by the issues he was confronting than by any idea of personal glory. He traveled without an entourage, a young black man taking on what seemed a Herculean task, armed with nothing but his beliefs and his faith, and his increasing awareness that he had been selected by forces outside his reach for a task far larger than any he had either sought or wanted; that he had been chosen by fate for a position of leadership in a movement that was far more powerful than any one man; and that his voice was something of a gift, a voice that belonged to others but had been granted to him. If this was not something he had sought, then somehow he was resigned to accepting it.
They had talked quickly to each other in a kind of shorthand, two cerebral young black ministers with much in common, both the sons of successful pastors, though of different denominations. They shared comparable backgrounds, mutual ambitions, and strikingly similar beliefs. They had swapped the tiny tidbits of identity as all Americans do as they sought to place each other. Martin King had been to the Boston University School of Theology, which was a Methodist school. Jim Lawson had a good many friends there and spoke of professors at B.U. whom he knew who were close to Martin. They both had been strongly influenced by Howard Thurman. There was, of course, a certain gap between them, one that was both theological and cultural, King being a Baptist and Lawson a Methodist, that being no small difference in black ministerial and political circles.
Lawson spoke of his particular interest in what King and the others had done in Montgomery because of his own personal experiences, first as a prisoner in a federal penitentiary and then as a student of nonviolence in India. As Jim Lawson began to discuss his background, Martin Luther King became very interested, for King had a quick sense that this man, who did not, as so many others did, claim to be a brother, was someone with a very similar vision of the struggle ahead, and a man who had acted upon conscience early in his life, when that kind of action was hardly fashionable. There were not many black ministers, after all, who had gone to prison because of their rejection of the Korean War.
When Lawson mentioned his time in India, King had gotten excited and had spoken about his own vague plans to go there and study. "I'd love to do that someday," he said, but he said it wistfully, in a way which showed that the moment was somehow already past. Then Jim Lawson had spoken of his own plans. "I've always wanted to work in the South and I hope to do it as soon as I've finished all my studies," he said. He said this almost casually, thinking that his time frame was about five years: First he would finish Oberlin, then go on to Yale, and then as a newly minted Yale doctor of divinity, he would venture down to some endangered place in the South. His was the most orderly of timetables. Years later he was quite amused by the casual way in which he had said this. But Martin Luther King was fascinated by the discovery of this kindred soul, who seemed to see politics and religion blended together into an activist gospel that had not merely a larger strategic purpose but tactical goals.
As such King had quickly interrupted him. "Don't wait! Come now!" he had said. "We don't have anyone like you down there. We need you right now. Please don't delay. Come as quickly as you can. We really need you."
There had been no doubting the urgency in King's words, and Jim Lawson had understood immediately what he was saying: Events are exploding, they are ahead of us, we are trying to catch up with them, and we need all the good people we can get to combine politics and theology each day in our activism and somehow not lose our way. We are becoming teachers when we are still so young that we ought to be nothing but students. It was as if he was telling the inner truth of the Movement: Things are happening so fast that we find ourselves in danger of leading by responding. It was not just a request he was making. Lawson thought, it was nothing less than a call. Without thinking, knowing that this conversation had turned from idle chitchat to the most serious dialogue imaginable, Jim Lawson had heard himself saying, "Yes, I understand. I'll arrange my affairs, and I'll come as quickly as I can."
An emergency appendectomy slowed him down slightly and kept him in Ohio longer than anticipated. He had by that time been a member of the Fellowship of Reconciliation for ten years, the Fellowship being a group of activists, primarily with Protestant religious affiliations, who wanted to use the force of Christian love--the love as seen in the life of Jesus Christ, the ability to love one's enemies--in all relationships, be they issues of state, issues of the workplace (labor against management), or issues of the most basic kind in terms of two people trying to get on with each other in a marriage. As a college freshman at Baldwin-Wallace, Jim Lawson had run into A. J. Muste, who was the grand old man of the FOR, a man of great conscience, consuming kindness, and high intellect. Muste had immediately reached out to this hungry, intellectually curious young black student and turned Lawson into something of a protege.
Lawson called Muste to tell him of his plans to go south. Perhaps, Lawson said, he would relocate in Atlanta and go to Gammon, a black theological seminary there. Muste told Lawson not to rush ahead, that perhaps the FOR could find something for him in the South. In time a call came back to Lawson from Glenn Smiley, then the national field director of the FOR, saying that the Fellowship needed a field secretary in the South--a roving troubleshooter to watch events in this part of the country where events seemed to be speeding up at so surprising a rate. Would Jim Lawson want the job? Yes, he thought to himself, it was exactly what he wanted and it would take him where he wanted to go.