PSU students learn about nonviolence from civil rights icon Rev. James Lawson
Author: Katy Swordfisk, PSU Media & PR
Posted: April 26, 2019

The sit-in campaigns organized at southern lunch counters in the 1960s weren’t about getting a hamburger, Rev. James Lawson told Portland State University students Wednesday night, but about starting a nonviolent movement for change.

Nonviolence, and its potential to effect institutional change, was the subject of Lawson’s visit to Portland and PSU. The civil rights icon, known best for his work with the Freedom Movement and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., spoke at an event hosted by PSU’s Students United for Nonviolence (SUN), a group looking to unite students and Portland advocating for peace and justice.

Lawson’s talk, “Continuing the Revolution: A New Intergenerational American Freedom Movement,” was part of a larger conference hosted by the James Lawson Institute. His visit also included a stop at Portland City Hall where the City Council declared April 24, 2019, Dr. Rev. James Lawson Jr. Day.

 “During a lot of our work in the southeastern part of the country from 1958-1974, I would never have allowed to the city commission to know I was in town,” Lawson told the council. “And even with that, there are pieces of that past where the police were alerted to the fact that I was in town and urged to give me a royal welcome. So this is a massive contrast and I’m extremely grateful.”

Ilima Nitta, a PSU senior majoring in social work and a student leader with SUN, said they too were grateful for Lawson’s visit.

“We thought having him come here and speak about his experience with nonviolence and how we can somehow transfer his experience with nonviolence to fit today’s climate was important and still relevant,” Nitta said. “It’s important for us to hear about tactics he’s done previously and see how we can relate that to today to what we see now.”

Lawson said students need to recognize their role in influencing change.

“They are pushing for humanity on the inside and autonomy and for recognizing themselves as being in the great stream of human life,” he said. “That's their most important task.”

Classes, especially in PSU’s College of Liberal Arts & Sciences Conflict Resolution program, offer tools for students to “become fully alive and fully human,” Lawson added.

 “Their major work is that of learning to live and to be and learning to accept what the Declaration of Independence said that we are all created equal and endowed with certain human rights, indivisible rights that cannot be taken away from us,” he said. “But of course, they are taken away from us, but every student has to try to become a human agency in which they dismantle the junk of our culture and the harmful poisons our culture and discover that, that they can overcome these.”

Medha Pulla, a PSU senior majoring in political science and student leader of SUN, said understanding the context surrounding change and finding similar circumstances in which they can apply it in their own communities is important — and why the chance to learn from Lawson is so important.

“His work in the civil rights movement is very applicable to all of us, and sometimes it can feel like an Oregon were removed from things that happened in the civil rights movement in the southeast,” Pulla said. “But that's not true. What (Lawson has) done, and what all of the leaders have done has really resonated.”

Photo/video by Katy Swordfisk