Civil rights leader James Lawson Jr. spoke at Fresno State

James Lawson

~ Photo above courtesy of Vanderbilt University

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~ By Lisa Maria Boyles, communication specialist for the College of Arts and Humanities

The Rev. James Lawson Jr., widely regarded as a pioneer of nonviolent tactics in the American civil rights movement, spoke to a full house on Feb. 23, in the North Gym 118. The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. described Lawson as “the leading theorist and strategist of nonviolence in the world.”

“We have power in our hands and in our souls. And if we understand that power and use that power we will be astonished at what can be accomplished. And I stand here now in 2017 at age 88, and I am astounded, I am astounded at what we were able to accomplish and how, in fact, we did begin to move this country!”

At times, Lawson’s voice rose with the passion of his convictions, as when he spoke of the 6,000 black men tortured and lynched between the Reconstruction after the Civil War and into the 1930s and ’40s..

Coordinator of Peace and Conflict Studies Dr. Veena Howard, whose recent research focuses on Gandhi and his influence on the American civil rights movement, sees Rev. Lawson as someone who gives new meaning and context to Gandhi’s method of nonviolence.

“It is very exciting that our students and community will have this opportunity to meet with a living embodiment of the power of love-force, who has worked alongside many leaders in the valley, including Cesar Chavez,” Howard said.

After Lawson’s talk, students had the opportunity to ask questions for the next 40 minutes. One young woman asked him how do you persuade someone who things violence is the best solution. Another person brought up the women’s marches and “pussy hats” that many protestors wore.

“Wasn’t it kind of exciting to see the January 21 marches that went, for the most part, without a hitch?” Lawson asked.

Lawson also told students, “You’re in college but your first job is to make a life. I think this needs to be taught more often.”

One 11-year-old student asked this: “When you were in jail, how did you feel about what you were doing and what was the inspiration that let you keep on going?” (This exceptionally bright young man is Arion Jimesanagnos.)

“From the perspective of expecting jail, I sought to use my jail time always in a path of loving … We visited a torture camp in Mississippi as part of the 1961 Freedom Ride. I was in the first bus that landed in Jackson, Miss., and we determined as we were arrested that we would turn the jails and the prisons into schools for the discovery of humanity.”

Dr. Andrew Fiala, chair of the Philosophy Department, spoke to why Lawson’s visit is so timely and important:

“We’ve seen a lot of hate, intolerance, and violence in recent months, as well as rapidly evolving grassroots activism. Some campuses have experienced violent protests. The time is ripe for us to understand the ethics of peace and the power of nonviolence. Fresno State has a strong and abiding commitment to nonviolence and peace philosophy, as seen in the Peace Garden, which lies in the center of our campus. Rev. Lawson will inspire students and the community with a deeper understanding of the need to use peaceful means in the struggle for justice.”

You can read Howard’s op-ed in The Fresno Bee about Lawson’s visit here.

In conjunction with the presentation on Feb. 23, there was a screening of two documentaries – “A Force More Powerful” and “Love and Solidarity” – and a discussion of these films with the Rev. Lawson Wednesday, Feb. 22, in Peters Building Room 191.

The events were free and open to the public.

Co-sponsors for this event included the College of Arts and Humanities; the Henry Madden Library, The Womack Fund; Peace and Conflict Studies Program; the Ethics CenterPhilosophy DepartmentPresident’s Commission on Human Relations and EquityCross Cultural and Gender Center; United Hindu Coalition of Central California; Africana Studies; Harnish Fund; and the Gandhi Memorial Education Fund.

INFO: Philosophy Professor Dr. Veena Howard at 559.435.2621 or


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The College of Arts and Humanities provides a diverse student population with the communication skills, humanistic values and cultural awareness that form the foundation of scholarship. The college offers intellectual and artistic programs that engage students and faculty and the community in collaboration, dialog and discovery. These programs help preserve, illuminate and nourish the arts and humanities for the campus and for the wider community.

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