A Kingly Meeting of Minds
Rarely is it possible to predict what will come of a first meeting with someone. It is unlikely that the history-changing encounter 50 years ago on Oberlin’s campus, the first meeting of Martin Luther King Jr. and James Lawson, was anticipated; however, it proved to be monumental.
The meeting is predicated by the experiences of the two well-known men previous to the encounter.
Lawson, an Ohio native, received his bachelor’s degree from Baldwin Wallace, and became a Methodist minister. In 1951 he was jailed for refusing the draft, and upon release went to Nagpur, India to do missionary work.
Lawson had long been interested in Mohandas Gandhi’s nonviolence work, and while in Nagpur he had an opportunity to meet with many of Gandhi’s followers and expand his knowledge of nonviolent protest techniques. In 1956, Lawson enrolled in the Oberlin Theological Seminary.
Meanwhile, King, who had recently received his doctorate, was quickly gaining publicity across the United States. Two years after the Montgomery bus boycott, in late January 1957, Time magazine ran a cover story on King and named him “man of the year.”
Soon after, the magazine ran a follow-up story on the boycott, again focusing on King and giving him a decidedly Gandhian image.
On February 6 of that same year, King made his first visit to Oberlin College. After this first talk, King attended a small dinner hosted by campus minister Harvey Cox, who also invited Lawson. Many students and teachers acted shyly around King, but Lawson boldly sat down across the table and introduced himself.
When Lawson mentioned having first seen King on the cover of the Nagpur Times in relation to the Montgomery Bus boycott in 1955, the latter immediately wanted to know more about India, having studied Gandhi for some time himself.
By the end of their lengthy and spirited conversation, Lawson had hinted at his longtime interest in eventually doing civil rights work in the South, making King adamant that his move to the South happen sooner rather than later.
“Come now, don’t wait,” King said to him. “We need you now. There is not a minister in the south with your depth of experience in nonviolence.”
Without knowing how exactly it would happen, Lawson said: “I will come as soon as I can.”
Sure enough, Lawson dropped out of Oberlin that same year, and by January of ’58 found himself in Nashville as the southern secretary for the Fellowship of Reconciliation.
In the fall of 1959, Lawson and his colleagues began workshops in nonviolence geared primarily toward young people, training 16-25 year olds how to safely and effectively do “sit-ins.” Lawson and some of his students had developed the content of these in previous years while in Ohio.
This movement truly exploded in January of 1960 after students in Raleigh, North Carolina caught the media’s attention after being arrested during a sit-in at the local Woolworth store. “In Nashville that Friday night,” wrote Taylor Branch in his book Parting the Waters, “Lawson presided over what turned out to be the first mass meeting of the sit-in movement.”
Nearly 500 students packed into First Baptist Church, inspired by the boys in Raleigh, who had managed to get through the ordeal unharmed.
At the time, Lawson was hesitant to dive into a series of sit-ins with this new batch of recruits, since very few — only about 75 of the 500 assembled at First Baptist — had received any training in the tactics of nonviolent protest.
The students were so determined however, that they convinced Lawson, who worked with students into the early hours of the morning in preparation for sit-ins the next day. These sit-ins were so successful that an excited Lawson urged King, as well as other nonviolence leaders such as Ella Baker and Douglas Moore, to spread the word and start running sit-ins elsewhere. By the end of February, sit-ins were happening in 31 cities in eight states.
Soon after, King reconnected with Oberlin as an assembly speaker in 1963 — though a case of the flu rendered him too weak to actually speak — and in 1964 after he won the Nobel Prize. His visit as Commencement speaker in 1965, when the College awarded him an honorary degree of humane letters, would be his last.
In a way, King and Lawson’s relationship ended as fatefully as it began, considering the fact that it was Lawson who was the one to invite King to Memphis in the spring of 1968, where he was shot.
Lawson was then the pastor at Centenary Methodist Church in Memphis and had taken the post as the chairman of the strategy committee for the sanitation strike.
King went to Memphis briefly in late March, but after protests turned violent, he felt that it was necessary for him to return in early April to lead a truly nonviolent protest. King delivered his famous “Mountaintop” speech on April 3, 1968, the day before his assassination, in honor of the strike.
Lawson continues the struggle for racial equality to this day, while also remaining active as a professor at Vanderbilt seminary.
Although Lawson probably would have done civil rights work in the South in any case, it is difficult to imagine the course the movement would have taken had he and King Jr. not forged such a strong bond one February day in Oberlin 50 years ago.