James Lawson and Bayard Rustin were early African-American draft resisters whose training in Gandhian nonviolence in India helped shape the Civil Rights Movement. Along the way they inspired many others, including draft resisters opposed to the war in Vietnam.
The Civil Rights Movement was widely covered in the press. Many millions of Americans watched closely to see how these struggles would unfold, and heard often bitter debate about their meaning. These struggles were a challenge to the entire nation: do we honor principles of equality and justice, or principles of racism and segregation? Some of the youngest viewers would later become leaders of the anti-war movement, drawing inspiration from what they had seen.
James Lawson was born in Pennsylvania in 1928 and raised in Ohio. As a college freshman he joined pacifist organizations advocating nonviolent resistance to racism. When his draft board sent him a notice to register in 1950, he refused, on grounds of pacifism and noncooperation, and served fourteen months in prison.
After his release, he went as a Methodist missionary to India, where he studied Gandhian nonviolence from students of Gandhi. Back in the U.S. at divinity school in Ohio, he met Martin Luther King, Jr., soon after the success of the Montgomery Bus Boycott. He told King he wanted to come to the South after finishing his degree, in about five years. King reacted: “Don’t wait! Come now! We don’t have anyone like you down there. We need you right now.”
So Lawson moved to Nashville where he attended divinity school at Vanderbilt. In 1958 he began to teach workshops for students in nonviolent resistance, building moral courage and fearlessness, and role-playing sit-ins to develop resilience and self-control in the face of fury and abuse.
Among Lawson’s students were future giants of the student civil rights movement, including John Lewis, Diane Nash, Marion Barry, and James Bevel. They drew up a series of instructions that became a model for student sit-ins across the South and beyond. “Do not strike back or curse if abused….Do not block entrances….Do show yourself friendly and courteous at all times…Remember the teachings of Jesus, Gandhi, Martin Luther King. Love and nonviolence is the way.” Their sit-ins in 1960 at Nashville’s lunch counters led to widely-publicized abuse and attack by whites, but within three months, six Nashville stores integrated their lunch counters for the first time.
Lawson and his students joined a conference at Fisk University that April, where the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee was founded. Lawson was a pivotal speaker who insisted nonviolent principles be the cornerstone of their work. SNCC later was involved in the Freedom Rides, voter registration drives in southern states, the March on Washington, Selma, and many other campaigns.
Bayard Rustin was born and raised in Pennsylvania by activist grandparents, his grandmother a Quaker. Openly gay (a rarity at the time) and a member of pacifist organizations, he organized with A. Philip Randolph a 1941 March on Washington that was canceled when President Roosevelt desegregated defense industries, took part in a Freedom Ride in 1947, and led workshops on nonviolent action.
In 1943, Bayard wrote a letter explaining his refusal to be drafted, sent it to his draft board and a copy to the Federal Attorney, and served 26 months in a federal penitentiary. He too studied Gandhian nonviolence in India, in 1948. He traveled to Montgomery two months after the beginning of the bus boycott. Famously, when he arrived at King’s doorstep, he found armed guards and King himself carrying a handgun. He soon convinced King that nonviolence was to be observed in all ways, and the guns went away. Rustin remained a close advisor to King and was the principal organizer of the 1963 March on Washington.
The young men who would later resist the draft in Vietnam grew up seeing the courage and self-sacrifice of the Civil Right Movement, and studied the same sources – Gandhi, Thoreau, King – for inspiration. Many participated in civil rights marches or sit-ins, or went to Mississippi in the summer of 1964 – Freedom Summer. Their willingness to break laws publicly, to risk arrest and prison in an attempt to resist an unjust war in Vietnam was due in no small part to the nonviolent principles and techniques brought to the Civil Rights Movement by James Lawson and Bayard Rustin.
Many Minds, One Heart: SNCC’s Dream for a New America by Wesley C. Hogan
Martin Luther King, Jr and the Global Freedom Struggle (website)
“Who Designed the March on Washington?” by Henry Louis Gates, Jr. part of “100 Amazing Facts About the Negro,” in the PBS website for the series “The African Americans: Many Rivers to Cross”