January 21, 2003

Lawson reflects on King's legacy

With voice reverberating throughout Rockefeller Chapel, Reverend James L. Lawson stirred boisterous applause from an audience gathered for the University of Chicago's annual Martin Luther King birthday commemoration on Monday.

"Wars have not advanced freedom for the American people. Wars have not advanced justice for the American people. Wars have not built the faith and community on which we stand today," Lawson proclaimed.

Lawson, a Methodist minister who worked with King for 10 years, was the keynote speaker at the University's annual memorial, his third appearance on campus in three years. The event was co-sponsored by Rockefeller Chapel, the Office of Minority Student Affairs (OMSA), the Martin Luther King, Jr. Day Committee, and the University Community Service Center.

"Every time people hear him speak, they are encouraged, challenged, and inspired," said Daphne Burt, associate pastor of Rockefeller Chapel. "I am so delighted that he was the keynote speaker for the King Day celebration."

Lawson is currently pastor emeritus at the Holman United Methodist Church in Los Angeles and has taught a course on nonviolence at UCLA in addition to lecturing across the nation.

Lawson met King in 1957, and they soon joined forces to combat racism through non-violent mass movement. He was president of the Southern Christian Leadership conference for 14 years, an organization founded by King to end racial segregation.

"Reverend Lawson was a really important influence in desegregation," said Dean Kathryn R. Stell, director of OMSA. "He is a part of the group of people that organized the nonviolent protests of the civil rights movement. You could say he was one of its architects. He helped start the student sit-ins at segregated restaurants and helped bring in black and white people to be the famous Freedom Riders."

In light of escalating tensions concerning a possible war with Iraq, Lawson's speech focused largely on issues of peace, equating both racism and war to violence in seductive disguises.

The memorial started with a recorded excerpt from King's Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech in 1964. Performances included a procession led by the Korean Drumming Troupe and singing by the Kenwood Academy Girls' Chorus and the Soul Umoja Gospel Choir.

Lawson tenderly recalled King, speaking about his message of peace and the movement he ignited, as well as the thousands of anonymous men and women he inspired to participate in the civil rights movement.

"We should celebrate this day and make it become the primary holiday of this nation, not because it is about the movement of a man, but [because] that movement represents the zenith of the struggle of the American people to make it plain: 'We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness,'" he said.

Lawson, a known opponent of war against Iraq, denounced militarism and weapons proliferation as false sources of security. "War and violence are the enemies to the human family. War and violence are the enemies to all nations," he said. "I don't believe victory will go the way of war and cruelty...that way cannot win."

Before ending his address, Lawson made an appeal to the audience--especially to University students--to transform their knowledge into action, bringing about the type of change for which King worked throughout his life.

"I will always be on the side of the nonviolent struggle for truth and the wonder of all of men," he said.

For many, the reminder of King's appeal for world peace and Lawson's advocacy of nonviolence seemed especially significant with escalating tensions in the Persian Gulf. The same sentiment was reflected by the Prayers for Peace and Candle-Lighting Ceremony, where different religious denominations recited prayers for peace and closure to the conflict.

"I think [the memorial program] is especially needed," said Myllicent Buchanan, a retired Hyde Park resident. "I think it was a call to action."

Dawn Thompson and Gameli Dekayie, both singers in Soul Umoja, agreed that it was worth coming to hear Lawson speak. "I thought it was a powerful message, especially at this time," said Thompson, a second-year in the College.

"It was a great opportunity to enlighten people who knew about Dr. King, but didn't know what he stood for; so they brought the man closest to him to talk about it," said Dekayie, also a second-year.

Some audience members, however, did not approve of Lawson's rhetoric against war. "I thought it was generally a progressive speech, but I disagree with what he said about wars [not solving] problems," said one student in the audience who requested not to be identified.