Lessons from two American Giants

Rev James Lawson and Rev William Barber
In less than one week, I’ve had the opportunity to go and see and hear from two giants who play tremendous roles creating change in American life. Two organizers who’ve made major things happen in American Civil Life:

Rev. James Lawson (co founder of SNCC and organizer of the Nashville Lunch Counter sit ins, & so much more) at his 4th Saturdays of the Month Nonviolence Workshop in Los Angeles (on January 28; next one Feb 25th 9a-noon.) and Rev. Dr. William Barber of the Moral Monday movement in North Carolina, who spoke October 1 at Occidental College.

Here are 5 things they said in common.


    Not as they are portrayed/watered down in media (movies, news stories, etc.), but what really happened.

    • Lawson: Gandhi’s 50 years of experience of nonviolence is ignored in the west. Tremendous body of work there to learn from.
    • Lawson and Barber: Study the civil rights movements. The events were not spontaneous. The events and movements involved many more people, many smaller groups of people than are portrayed in the easy newsy narratives about “what happened.”
    Lots of work in the movements took place before the acts that were visible to the public. Lots of organizing, lots of meetings and talking and listening, lots of planning, lots of investigation and analysis.

    • Lawson: a year’s preparation before the Nashville lunch counter sit ins began. Same with bus boycott. The target emerged from stories of what people were experiencing (see point 5 for more)
    • Barber: the Moral Monday movement has been visible in the news for the last 3 years, but there’s been 7 years of work taking place behind the scenes before that.
  3. FIND OUT WHAT THE PRESSING ISSUES ARE. Go local. Go to everyone, no matter where you are on the “divide.”
    • Lawson: Montgomery Bus boycott: Black women described being harassed by bus drivers.Nashville lunch counter: Black women doing shopping spoke of having no place to rest in midst of the shopping day. The actions emerged from the very specific experiences of people, gathered together, talking about what their particular problems were.
    • Barber: The Fusion movement began in NC from listening to different groups of people discuss their problems and frustrations. As each group outlined the conditions, and then it came to what is the cause, they all found themselves with a common cause: The NC state legislative body.
  4. THE WORK IS STRATEGIC. Study the powers that be, study your own side to see where you can work to best advantage. Plan your actions in that light.
    • Lawson: Lunch counter sit ins and downtown shopping district. Led to a boycott of the stores in the Nashville downtown area. The whites wouldn’t go shop there because the confrontations (which they termed “violent” and “riots”) made the place too dangerous, and the black communities withdrew their shopping support from there. Then, as the movement grew, boycotts of Woolworth went national, northern communities picketed and boycotted in support of the corporate chain and its behavior in Nashville and other places in the South.

      also: the work is disciplined. Think in terms of team sports. Everyone doing their part. Do NOT think of activism work as Do Your Own Thing. Game psychology: If something happens on the field that makes you mad, okay then… but don’t let your anger stop you from playing your best game.

    • Barber: Rosa Parks chose the day she sat down on that bus. The day was selected so that preachers in black churches would not get scared and back down. Choose a Monday, and you give preachers too much time to get scared and back down. So she and the others chose Thursday, so momentum would be maximized as Thursday led into the weekend, and to church attendance on Sunday. Building momentum on your own side.

      Barber, also: By the time they were doing their Moral Monday actions in public in the last 3 years, they dominated the news. What happens on Monday. Then who got arrested, hold press conference when they were released. Hold press conferences of people who were choosing to do an action that would result in their arrest. They chose their days to dominate the news cycle.Figure out how to do work to disrupt DJT’s narrative. Be shrewd.

  5. The LANGUAGE you use.
    The movements use moral language, choosing their own language, not the language of their opponents.

    • Barber: don’t limit yourself by using words like left or right (when things are happening that are just plain wrong!) or conservative or liberal. Don’t emphasize freedom in the constitution when the preamble talks about establishing justice, promoting general welfare and common defense… once those things are all in place, you have conditions that enable a free people. Also, from religious standpoint, look at how much more the bible speaks of poverty, of the immigrant and the stranger among you and the call for how to treat them.
    • Lawson: On Saturday, talking about how amazingly impressive the outpouring of previous Saturday’s marches across the nation. Largest ever. So impressive. And yet (he returned to the topic of the march after talking about the work of Gandhi) a movement that has, as its symbol, a pink pussy hat a symbol of the resistance is adopting the language of the enemy. The language of transformation has to be a different language. Any analysis of what’s taking place that excludes racism, sexism, violence, and plantation capitalism will not address the root problems. You cannot dismantle one with out dismantling the others. Do not adopt Trump’s language.Lawson continued, reflecting on the women’s march and issues. The issue is not abortion It is not reproductive rights. It IS breaking the back of historical oppression of women. It is anything that treats women as other than fully human person with full agency. The work around restricting abortion is a continuation of a society and structural practice where men batter women. The oppression of women is the first oppression from which all other oppressions have been derived.

(Over the days since Saturday’s workshop with Lawson, I’ve been toying with this question as a way to reframe all the women’s issues, “Are women full and complete human beings?” If the answer is “Yes, but” then the answer, really, is NO. So far, it seems to me it helps to dig down to a deeper, more transcendent level.)

. . . . . .

There were more specifics from each (you can watch the video of Barber from Oct 1, link below, ’twas so good), and Lawson went over Gandhi’s 4 steps of a movement and also the 5 levels at which nonviolence is applied (nonviolence, or: love in action or soul force) — each level is a laboratory for love in action:
[1] self, [2] family+intimates, [3] organizations and neighborhoods to which you belong, ie, your daily life and work, [4] organized effort to do a campaign in a city/community, i.e., union, congregation, social group, and [5] where campaigns come together, regional or national movement.

. . . . .

Video of Rev. Barber’s talk at Occidental College (video will start when he starts speaking at 35 mins into evening program)

Another video! On this page, watch the video of Rev. Lawson speaking at a book launch event last April. It’s 1.5 hr video of an entire program. Oof! For shorter attention spans, I made a time stamp of topics in that video. It’s easy to sit through a 1.5 hour program when you’re there, harder to do so online because short attention span. Rev. Lawson begins speaking at 20:20. The Q&A that follows is excellent.  Detailed timestamps of video here.

Order the Rev. Lawson book Nonviolence and Social Movements: The Teachings of Rev. James M. Lawson Jr.  from UCLA Labor Center (only place it’s available).

Order Rev. Dr. William Barber’s book, The Third Reconstruction: How a Moral Movement Is Overcoming the Politics of Division and Fear (Amazon)

One response to “Lessons from two American Giants”

  1. Kat Ward

    Thank you so much, Ms Kitchens, for taking the time to share these notes. Such important information; a lot for me to learn! 🙂