UCLA Medal Presentation to Reverend James LawsonSpeech
Good afternoon. Thank you all for being here.
The UCLA Medal is our university’s highest honor. We have presented this award to presidents and philanthropists, artists and astronauts.
Today, a legend joins their ranks.
A hero of the civil rights movement, Reverend James Lawson has been a force for justice for more than half a century.
People become heroes and inspire others partly because they have great skills. But even more importantly, heroes have the all-too-rare ability to hear — and heed — the call of their conscience, often at great risk to themselves, but in service to humanity. Reverend Lawson embodies this ideal. His life is a powerful example of heeding that call of conscience.
The year he graduated high school, he heeded that call when he decided to follow his father and grandfather into the ministry. But even as the call of his of conscience led him to join his family in service to a higher power, his courageous belief in the importance of nonviolence led to his refusal to be drafted into the Korean War.
That decision caused him to serve 13 months in prison. It would not be the last time Reverend Lawson would have to sacrifice for his beliefs.
While a teacher and campus minister in India, Reverend Lawson had the opportunity to reflect on Gandhi’s nonviolent political activism and movement-building. Thinking about the civil rights struggles back home, the relevance of Gandhi’s nonviolence strategy was compelling.
Returning home in 1956, one year after Rosa Parks’ famous protest and right in the midst of the Montgomery Bus Boycott, he dedicated himself to teaching the theory and practice of nonviolent resistance. His students were freedom riders, civil rights marchers and young activists like Diane Nash and John Lewis (a former UCLA Medal recipient).
In so doing, he became one of the driving forces of the civil rights movement. As a man of faith, Reverend Lawson saw the struggle for racial justice as a matter of profound spiritual importance.
He called his generation’s fight against racism “a moment in history when God saw fit to call America back from the depths of moral depravity and onto his path of righteousness.”
He saw that the soul of America was at stake. Reverend Lawson brought the moral seriousness and ethical courage that the times required. He and his colleagues helped transform our nation and made this a better place for every single person who lives here.
Though he challenged segregation in his own church and fought discrimination at the heart of American politics, Reverend Lawson was not necessarily lauded and celebrated at the time for his actions. Instead, he was criticized and vilified for the difficult path he chose. This makes his commitment all the more impressive.
Through all the trials and tests, through dodging blows and burying friends, Reverend Lawson was, as his friend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. might say, “a drum major for justice.” That is perhaps the highest praise any of us can hope for in the quest for a life well-lived.
It was Dr. King who called Reverend Lawson our nation’s “leading theorist of nonviolence.”
Diane Nash, the co-founder of the hugely influential Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, went even further in her praise of Reverend Lawson when she declared: “I think that he, more than anyone else really, is why the Civil Rights Movement was nonviolent.”
In the 1970s he relocated from the south here to Los Angeles — a city needing to confront its own history of racism — and became the pastor at Holman Methodist Church. He certainly did not leave his activism behind. In L.A., he has remained a moral leader and a respected voice, lending his support to causes like workers’ rights and LGBT equality, and training a new generation to embrace the discipline of nonviolent social change.
We are lucky to have his vital teaching at UCLA, where for the past 15 years he has led a class on “Nonviolence and Social Movements.” Offered through the UCLA Labor Center, the class is routinely filled to capacity. Many students say it is the best course they have taken — and that it had a major impact on their lives.
Despite the vicious opposition the civil rights movement endured, despite the ongoing violence we see from Ferguson to Charleston to Pittsburgh and abroad, James Lawson has remained steadfast to his commitment to nonviolence as both a political tactic and a moral calling. He continues to remind America that our nation must not be “trapped, embedded and addicted to the mythology of violence.”
A mythology is about more than laws or customs. It refers to the belief systems, narratives and sense of self that shape our culture and drive our actions. And Reverend Lawson knows that changing a culture requires deep engagement. With conviction and clarity, he has rightly declared that “we cannot accept the culture of our foes, use the language of our adversaries, apply the weapons of our enemy, or behave like those who are traitors to their own humanity — and yet still be able to create something compassionate, ethical and just.”
Jim Lawson is still speaking truth to all of us. And the truth is that if our nation — if our world — is to survive, it needs to reform this culture of violence.
His message to us is as urgent as it was in the 1950s and ‘60s: That we must commit ourselves to peaceful means of resolving conflicts and to live with the compassion and empathy necessary to realize that our well-being is tied to that of others, and that justice is everyone’s responsibility.
Jim Lawson, we have deep gratitude for all you have done for our nation, the example you have set for so many, and the lessons that you keep teaching us. We are also grateful to your wife, Dorothy, and your sons for sharing you with all of us and the world. We are so glad they are here to join us today.
So, please help me welcome to the stage, Reverend James Lawson!
Before we present you with the Medal, I’d like everyone to hear this citation, which reads:
JAMES M. LAWSON JR.
One of the most respected civil rights leaders in our nation, your life as an activist, spiritual leader and educator has embodied the highest aspirations of American democracy. Through your life-long commitment to justice for all people, you overcame some of the worst injustices in America by embodying its best ideals. Your principled struggle for human rights and civil liberties reminds us always to hear and heed the voice of our conscience. Your courageous advocacy of nonviolent change demonstrates what is possible when we dare to imagine a better way. Your tireless pursuit of peace and your visionary teaching and mentorship have improved lives, inspired generations of activists and brought us closer to realizing America’s true promise. Your legacy will uplift and inspire seekers of peace for generations to come. With the highest respect and gratitude, we proudly bestow upon you the UCLA Medal. Given at UCLA this twenty-eighth day of November, two thousand and eighteen.