Lessons From the James Lawson Institute

James Lawson Institute participant, Ryan Hall, shares the lessons he learned during the five day program.
James Lawson Institute Group, Portland, OR 2019 (James Lawson Institute)

Recently I had the great pleasure to be a participant in the 6th James Lawson Institute (JLI) in Portland, OR.  The Institute was formed as a way to organize movements and educate around strategic nonviolent action. It is particularly focused on a North American context to, as their website says, “look at the art and science of nonviolent conflict, and apply scholarly and practitioner knowledge from diverse places (including movements abroad) to the political scenes in the United States and Canada.”

Rev. James Lawson remains an incredibly important figure today as one of the key organizers and practitioners of nonviolence during the Civil Rights Movement (or Freedom Movement as Lawson calls it)  and continues at age 90 to promote the methods and power of nonviolent action around the world. Martin Luther King, Jr. said Lawson was the “mind of the movement” and “the greatest teacher of nonviolence in America”.  Some of our Campaign Nonviolence supporters may recall that we had Rev. Jim Lawson speak at our 2015 Campaign Nonviolence Conference in New Mexico. You can watch his speech here.

Over the course of five days fifty people including presenters, facilitators and participants from throughout the U.S. covered a variety of topics around nonviolent strategy, the crucial role of women in nonviolent movements, historical examples of successful nonviolent campaigns, learning how to craft a message for the movement and preventing violent flanks during actions.  College style lectures along with workshop role-plays and small group discussions were held throughout each day to provide a mix of learning capabilities.

Attending an event like this is akin to compressing a whole semester’s worth of material into five days, so I’m certain it will take time to fully comprehend everything.  Nevertheless, a few important lessons stand out especially as it relates to our work here at Pace e Bene and with our project, Campaign Nonviolence.

JLI particpants doing a workshop exercise (James Lawson Institute)

Lesson #1:   Deep Preparation.

It makes sense that one of the first things we’d learn from the leading theoretician of nonviolence, Rev. Lawson, was the importance of preparation in any nonviolent campaign.  Not just preparation though, but, as he called it, deep preparation.

Addressing any issue requires doing your research first.  This means really understanding the culture and context of the issue you are working to change and crafting a campaign that clearly understands these intricacies.  In other words, you can’t just import Gandhi, you have to know your current situation.

Rev. Lawson spoke about what he sees as a “protest culture” that we currently live in.  All too often, activists are eager to get out into the streets and express their understandable anger at the current situation, but it’s rarely focused on creating real change.  He encouraged people not to do actions for actions’ sake, but to have a goal and a strategy towards the change you seek.

This raised some questions for me regarding our Campaign Nonviolence Action Week where we encourage people to take public action each September for a culture of nonviolence to end war, poverty, racism and environmental destruction.  Was this “actions for actions’ sake”, I wondered? I spoke to Rev. Lawson about it and he said that it depends on our goal. If it’s just to get people to protest, then it may not be sufficient, but if the goal is focused on getting the nonviolence movement moving and sparking more participation and understanding about the importance of nonviolence overall then it makes sense.  Indeed, the latter has been our intention all along and re-confirmed for me the important role that the Campaign Nonviolence Action Week is playing in the buildup of a nonviolent culture. What began with only 240 actions in 2014, reached over 2600 local nonviolent actions and events in 2018 in all fifty U.S. states and numerous other countries. 2019 may prove to be even larger and I encourage everyone to join us this September 14-22 by registering your action here.  From our point of view, the movement is definitely starting to move.  

Lesson #2:  Importance of Strategy.

In addition to deep preparation, a nonviolent campaign’s strategy for success is just as crucial.

We spent several hours examining the 1960 Nashville lunch-counter sit-ins in which Rev. Lawson trained members of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and others in nonviolent methods in order to end segregation within the city.  You can watch a segment here from A Force More Powerful, called “We Were Warriors” that looks at the Nashville campaign’s success.   In our session we did an interactive exercise where half of the participants in the room looked at each step the nonviolent campaign used to pressure the white store owners for an end to segregation, while the other half of our room looked at each step the white store owners took to stop the campaign.  

It was fascinating to see how the campaign to end segregation in Nashville was able to stay one step ahead of the white store owner’s tactics to stop them.  When the sit-ins began, the white store owners did nothing but try to make the students look ridiculous, implying that holding a sit-in at a lunch counter wouldn’t change anything. As it it continued though, the restaurants began to close their doors and stop serving anyone.  

Later, the police allowed young white men to harass the students at the counters, calling them names and injuring them.  No arrests were made up to that point. What soon became clear was that the white store owners and city officials had no other tools in their toolbox to solve this situation except violence – and that is when they began arresting those at the lunch counters.  

The students, however, were prepared, as one student got arrested, another would come in and sit down, with wave after wave of new students taking their place.  The violence committed by the police and the other young white men in the community backfired, helping bring sympathy to the movement’s cause as they remained nonviolent.  This nonviolent action was ultimately paired with a boycott of downtown stores by the African American community. White shoppers began to avoid downtown, not in support of desegregation, but due to the continuing protests. Overall, this put serious financial pressure on the business community to start making some changes.

The movement’s strategy worked, but they had to prepare themselves through nonviolence training and understanding the various ways in which the city would respond to each of their tactics. Whereas the city and white store owners had few other options besides violence to respond, the nonviolence movement had, according to Gene Sharp, at least 198 methods for nonviolent action.  It is also important to remember, while the campaign succeeded in desegregating downtown lunch counters in just a few short months, the full integration of Nashville stores, restaurants, and movie theaters took several years.  So, lesson 2.1…. give your campaign the time it needs. Change does not happen overnight.

One other point about strategy we discussed briefly was examining the pillars of support for the issue you are trying to address.  In the Nashville campaign, the movement organizers knew from their preparation that segregation was being upheld by numerous groups in the city such as the business community, police force and local government.  They understood that if they began to remove the support for segregation within each of these groups it would begin to change the general population’s view as well and segregation would begin to end. They did not just go out and protest, they knew who to target and where to target their campaign in order for the injustice of segregation in Nashville to slowly come to an end.  

Lesson #3: As Shakespeare said “what’s past is prologue”. Knowing our history is important.

Much of what we think about in nonviolence movements historically, including the Civil Rights Movement, is focused on marches and protests. While those no doubt play an important role, the message it implies fails to grasp the many other ways in which the movements brought about change. It was clear in the Nashville campaign that way before the marches even began, organizers were planning a strategy that would effectively remove support for segregation within the city. If we want our movements to succeed we have to understand how movements in the past fully organized.

An important example about historical narratives was given by Rivera Sun, author and nonviolence trainer for Pace e Bene.  She spoke about the nonviolent roots of U.S. independence as opposed to the more familiar narrative that the war won our nation’s independence.  Long before the war began the colonies had set up effective boycotts of various British goods to starve the British economy of needed taxes and profits.  In order to make sure the boycotts held, colonists had to set up their own alternative institutions that could provide those missing resources. By the time war was being proposed, the colonies were already effectively independent. As John Adams wrote, “A history of military operations…is not a history of the American Revolution. The revolution was in the minds and hearts of the people, and in the union of the colonies; both of which were substantially effected before hostilities commenced.” Rivera was drawing on scholars such as Walter Conser who wrote a book on the nonviolent roots of American independence (Before Lexington: Resistance, Politics, and the American Struggle for Independence, 1765-1775) and who joined us on a conference call in 2016 to share his research with us, which you can listen to here.

It’s important to understand these roots because of the effect that history has on the hearts and minds of our culture.  Rivera said that the founding myth of the U.S. around violence and war creates – for those of us raised here and likely steeped in culture of violence –  a certain identity, birth story and worldview that ultimately gives us reasons to justify later actions. In other words, in the U.S., violence is our default problem-solving method because we have seen it for so long as practical, rational and historically effective, despite the many failures of violence.  If, however, the reality of our nonviolent history was taught accurately, the U.S. might just play a more positive, diplomatic and nonviolent role in the world.

History is, in many ways, a story we tell ourselves about who we are.  For a wonderful example of how that story is being re-framed through a nonviolent lens check out Nonviolence Now.

Lesson #4:  Who is at the table?  Women are the key.

When we learn about history here in the U.S.  it’s often, as John Adams said, about military operations and the ways in which white men gained power.   Clearly, that history leaves out a lot of other people including women and people of color.

For several sessions we looked at the role of women during the Civil Rights Movement and around the world.  It became obvious that without women most nonviolent movements simply would not succeed.

Dr. Mary King, Director of the James Lawson Institute and a former staff member of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) in the 1960s, reminded us that if there was no Rosa Parks, there may not have been a Martin Luther King, Jr..  Rosa’s seemingly simple act of not moving from her seat to allow a white person to sit there was one of the key events that helped launch the Montgomery bus boycott and the subsequent Civil Rights Movement. And we can’t forget that Rosa was trained in nonviolence and had prepared for this action in the lead up to it.

Dr. Sekou Franklin, associate professor of Political Science at Middle Tennessee State University and Mary King write that  “Women were the critical galvanizing force for the Montgomery bus boycott (1955–1956). A citywide action against the segregated bus system had been planned for three years, led by JoAnne Robinson and the black Women’s Political Council. They were also the backbone of the community organizing that built the freedom movement.”

Many of the African American women who organized during the Civil Rights Movement, such as Ella Baker, Septima Clark, Fannie Lou Hammer, Dorothy Cotton, set up parallel organizations to help those who were disenfranchised from white society including schools, anti-poverty organizations and political parties. Without this type of organizing the movement would not have been able to function as well.

Rivera also reminded us that during the American Independence, women played a crucial role in the decade of resistance that preceded the Revolutionary War.  Women were the ones who made the clothing and other important materials when it was being boycotted from Great Britain. As in the case of the Civil Rights Movement, women were once again the backbone of the movement.  

Women have, until recently, been largely excluded from using political violence to achieve change. They have historically used other methods – often nonviolent methods. This history illuminates one of the main reasons nonviolence is a powerful tool in making change: it allows everyone to participate. Having women’s presence, not to mention the elderly and children, can sometimes also lower the level of violent response from security forces as well.  

The role of women in these movements is an important reminder about who has a role and a say as we work to build a nonviolent movement.  I came away from the institute feeling stronger than ever that a diverse range of voices must be included, otherwise the movement will not succeed.  Professor Erica Chenoweth, also on the faculty of JLI and spoke at our 2015 Campaign Nonviolence Conference, says that if you can just get 3.5% of the population to support your issue, change is very likely.  There’s simply no reason, then, to leave out anyone from the movement.

Lesson #5:  Know Your Message.

These days we are bombarded with professionally crafted advertising geared to get us to buy something, watch something, eat something, etc.  These ad companies spend lots of time and money creating a message meant simply to get us to buy their products. Well, frankly, we have a much better product to offer and it’s time we used the time and money we have to create thought provoking messages for nonviolence.  

When planning an action, how it is framed can be just as important as the action itself, so we took several hours during the institute discussing different ways we could frame a message that would speak to the people we wanted to reach.  

Deborah Mathis, Director of Communications at the International Center for Nonviolence Conflict, gave us some helpful pointers when crafting your message. Her rule was: 2 A’s and 3 C’s. First, define your AUDIENCE. Second, identify what is your ASK of the audience. Third, be CLEAR. Fourth, be CONCISE. Lastly, be CONSISTENT.  She also suggested phrasing your message with a promise and a threat. For example, March for Our Lives’ slogan said: “We don’t have to live like this. We don’t have to die like this. Together we can change this.”

In regards to the news media, Deborah Mathis also said that the important thing to remember about the media is that they do not cover movements in an ongoing way. While we often feel that the media ignores nonviolent movements we have to understand that the news media are really only geared to cover “happenings”, which is what will get their attention.  They also clearly love to cover conflict, so, when planning an action she suggested that the “conflict” we create, should obviously not be violent, but should be something out-of-the-ordinary that catches their attention.

Dr. Mary King also pointed out that it is important to give someone in your group a title specifically for the media.  She said that while she was in SNCC in the 60s, they did not give titles to anyone other than the media spokesperson – that way the media knew who the official person was if they needed an interview.   

Lesson #6:  Local > National

Rev. Lawson spoke about this on several occasions during our time together.  He said that what this country really needs right now is a wave of local campaigns across the country on many different issues.   No doubt Lawson’s experience during the Civil Rights Movement played a role in this idea as he moved from city to city throughout the South organizing on a range of different issues.

Well, it will come as no surprise that the first thing I thought of was Campaign Nonviolence.  While we operate as a national hub and resource, the actions that get planned during the Campaign Nonviolence Action Week each September around ending war, poverty, racism and environmental destruction are very much locally based and organized by local activists.  I came away feeling very proud of the work we are doing with Campaign Nonviolence and while it takes time to build a movement, we are seeing a steady increase in actions taking place each year in all fifty states and internationally.  

Reflecting on this whole experience I can’t help but feel that nonviolence is so much more important than ever before.  It holds so much potential for positive change when more people understand what nonviolence can achieve.

One small piece not mentioned much during the JLI was the importance of practicing a form of personal nonviolence or what we at Pace e Bene like to call the spirituality and practice of nonviolence. At Pace e Bene, we see nonviolence as a holistic approach to life – a way of living in the world that brings peace and justice to those around us but is also gentle to ourselves during the struggles we engage in.  

For a great book on integrating nonviolence toward yourself, others and the movement, read John Dear’s Pace e Bene book, The Nonviolent Life.

The same weekend that the James Lawson Institute was taking place also happened to be one of the biggest TV and film weekends this year as well and both were about war:  Game of Thrones and Avengers: End Game.  We are like fish in water, not even noticing the violence that we embrace and use to entertain ourselves.    We need nonviolence and a nonviolent culture now more than ever.

Also posted on Paceebene.org

This story was produced by Campaign Nonviolence

Campaign Nonviolence, a project of Pace e Bene Nonviolence Service, is working for a new culture of nonviolence by connecting the issues to end war, poverty, racism and environmental destruction. We organize The Nonviolent Cities Project and the annual Campaign Nonviolence Week of Actions.

Waging Nonviolence partners with other organizations and publishes their work.