Civil Rights & Martin Luther King, Jr.

A Pastor for All the People: The Street Spirit Interview with Rev. Phil Lawson

by Terry Messman

Rev. Phillip Lawson, c. 2012; photographer unknown

Love and compassion are what sustain me. Love and you can learn how to live. I told the Council of Elders this. When you are down and depressed, or hurting or grieving, the most powerful thing you can do to sustain yourself is to go do something for someone else who is hurting.” Rev. Phil Lawson.

Street Spirit: Rev. Lawson, you told me that when you were growing up, you realized that horrific violence was directed against the black community — Jim Crow laws, segregation, lynching. In the face of that violence, why did you make a commitment to nonviolence at age 15 that has lasted for the past 65 years?

 Nonviolence is a way of life that leads to community.

Rev. Phil Lawson: I’m firm in my understanding and beliefs, Terry, that nonviolence is a way of life.  Rather than a tactic or a strategy to overcome problems, nonviolence is a way of life that leads to community. You cannot build community on violence, whether it’s psychological violence, economic violence, cultural or environmental violence. Regardless of the adjective you put before the word “violence,” violence will not produce community. And the goal of my life, and I think for most human beings, is community. The opposite of slavery is not freedom, but community. The opposite of abuse and oppression is not just to be free of that, but to live in a community where that abuse is infrequent, where that is not supported, where that is not structural. We live in a nation in which violence is structural; it is not personal. Racism is structural.

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Rev. Phil Lawson: Building the Beloved Community

by Terry Messman

Rev. Phil Lawson rallying support for gays and lesbians; photograph by Mike DuBose.

Rev. Lawson has worked his entire life to ensure that there will be room enough in the beloved community so no one will be left outside to suffer and die in poverty on the streets, no one will be locked out by border walls, and no one will be denied entrance because of racial intolerance or homophobia. At some point in the course of his lifelong work to build a truly inclusive community, Rev. Phil Lawson became a pastor for all the people. His ministry now extends far beyond the walls of the Methodist churches where he ministered to his congregations in Richmond, El Cerrito and Vallejo. The walls of his church have expanded to include the homeless and hungry people cast out of American society, the refugees from war-torn lands in Central America, the same-sex couples he joined in marriage, the low-paid workers in Richmond struggling for living wages, the peace and justice activists who look to this soft-spoken man for leadership, and the Occupy activists seeking to build a nationwide movement for justice.

The purpose of nonviolence is the creation of the beloved community.

As Lawson’s ministry has expanded through all these years of pastoral service and nonviolent movement building, it has become clear that there is only one edifice large enough to provide sanctuary for all the people he has included in his ministry — the “beloved community.” At a forum on nonviolent resistance held at the height of the Occupy movement in Oakland on Dec. 15, 2011, Rev. Lawson declared: “The end result of nonviolence is redemption and reconciliation. The purpose of nonviolence is the creation of the beloved community.”

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Reflections on the Life of Rev. Phil Lawson

by David Hartsough, Sherri Maurin & Rev. Brian Woodson

David Hartsough

Phil Lawson is a lifelong peace and justice activist who works for the radical transformation of our society, towards one where every person can live with dignity. He is willing to struggle and even go to jail for his beliefs. Because he lives by the values and principles of nonviolence in his own life, Phil is an example of what a good Christian pastor should be. In the struggle to build a just and peaceful society and world, he has helped the church to become a headlight instead of a taillight. His longstanding work for real immigration reform is a model for how the churches can stand on the right side of justice. Phil’s commitment in establishing the Interfaith Tent in support of the Occupy movement in Oakland is a great example of his relentless persistence. He has that sparkle in his eye, and you know that he means what he says and that hope will always have the last word.

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Dr. King’s Gauntlet: Nonviolence or Nonexistence

by John Dear

I consider Martin Luther King, Jr. the great, holy prophet to the nation. He was a prophet of nonviolence sent by the God of peace and justice to call our country to repent of the sin of violence and war and to call us to the new life of nonviolence and peace. As we recall Dr. King, I hope we can remember his central, crucial, critical message.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.; painting by Betsy G. Reyneau; public domain image courtesy of

On April 3, 1968, the night before he was assassinated (by our government), Dr. King told thousands of people at the Mason Temple in Memphis, Tennessee: “For years now, we have been talking about war and peace. But now, no longer can we just talk about it. It is no longer a choice between violence and nonviolence; it’s nonviolence or nonexistence.”

It is no longer a choice between violence and nonviolence;
it’s nonviolence or nonexistence.

“Nonviolence or nonexistence.” That is the choice. These are the last words of Dr. King, the gauntlet he threw down before us, and before the whole world. Nobody talks about it, but this is the heart of Martin Luther King, Jr. It remains the critical choice before us all.

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Martin Luther King Jr.’s Steps to Nonviolent Action

by John Dear

Dr. King with President Lyndon Johnson; photographer unknown; public domain image courtesy of

I’ve been reflecting on the principles of nonviolence, which Dr. Martin Luther King learned during the historic yearlong bus boycott in Montgomery, Alabama. After Rosa Parks refused to sit in the back of the bus, broke the segregation law, and was arrested on December 1, 1955, the African-American leadership in Montgomery famously chose young Rev. Dr. King to lead their campaign. He was an unknown quantity. Certainly no one expected him to emerge as a Moses-like tower of strength. No one imagined that he would invoke Gandhi’s method of nonviolent resistance in Christian language as the basis for the boycott. But from day one, he was a force to be reckoned with.

With the help of Bayard Rustin and Glenn Smiley of the Fellowship of Reconciliation, Dr. King articulated a methodology of nonviolence that still rings true. It’s an ethic of nonviolent resistance that’s also a strategy of hope, which can help us today in the thousands of Montgomery-like movements around the world, including environmentalism and the ongoing Arab Spring.

Dr. King outlined his way of nonviolence in his 1958 account of the Montgomery movement, Stride Toward Freedom (New York: Harper and Row, pp. 83-88). There he tells the story of the movement and his own personal journey, from which we can extrapolate his six nonviolence principles. Dr. King lived and taught these essential ingredients of active nonviolence until the day he died. (For an excellent commentary on them, I recommend Roots of Resistance: The Nonviolent Ethic of Martin Luther King, Jr., by William D. Watley, Valley Forge: Judson Press, 1985.)

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Standing with the Poor: The Street Spirit Interview with Vincent Harding

by Terry Messman

Martin was attuned to the Hebrew prophets, and that was their constant message: Don’t talk about loving God or being religious unless you stand with the outcasts and the weak. Jesus said the same thing. There’s no way to understand Martin’s urgency about standing with the poor without taking into consideration his deepest religious grounding.” Vincent Harding

Vincent Harding, c. 2013; photographer unknown.

Street Spirit: In your book, Martin Luther King: The Inconvenient Hero, you wrote that the public seems most aware of the first part of Dr. King’s journey that culminated in his “I have a dream” speech during the March on Washington in August 1963. Yet, in the final year of his life, King attempted to build a far more militant movement that could challenge racism, the war in Vietnam, poverty, unemployment and slum housing. What are your reflections on Martin Luther King in the last year of his life?

Vincent Harding: Well, Terry, I think that he was, as much as anything else, a man in search. He was not simply repeating himself, but trying to develop himself. It was clear that he was responding to the world that he was living in, and the world that was coming into being all around him. I think that that element of being engaged with the world as it was developing is one of the most important things that I would see.

He was trying to speak to the developing Black consciousness that was rising up in the Black community. He was trying to speak to the younger people who probably, even more than they knew it, were responding themselves to the society’s tendency to see them simply as waste material. He was trying to understand ways in which he could help those young people to see a sense of purpose for their lives, beyond the explosive kinds of actions that they were engaged in, in the urban areas of this country.

And then, of course, he was trying to respond to his country’s imperialism and militarism. And that was something that he simply could not let pass him by. It was absolutely necessary to speak to what that militarism was doing to the country — especially as expressed in Vietnam.

Because he was a deep lover of his country, he felt that there would be no way in which he could be a person of integrity, and be silent about the damage that he saw us, as a nation, inflicting on ourselves and on other people. And, of course, in the midst of this period, he also tried to figure out how the wealthiest country in the world could respond to the growing damage that it was doing to its poor people. That whole question of poverty, and the response to poverty and the response to the poor, is another element, I would say, of his overwhelming concern.

I’d like to mention one other thing, though. And that is that if we’re talking about that last year, he is really constantly trying to understand what would nonviolent revolution be like in America. And, at least as important, how would he call the angry, explosive, young people into that kind of task — for the good of the country, for the good of themselves, for the good of the world.

This whole matter of the young people — their explosive energy somehow being called into participation in a nonviolent revolutionary change and struggle — that was something that was very much on his mind and heart, and that needs to be seen as crucial to those last years.

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Building the Positive Peace Warrior Network: The Street Spirit Interview with Kazu Haga

by Terry Messman

Kazu Haga is dedicated to spreading Martin Luther King’s vision of the Beloved Community to the next generation. Rev. King believed that his philosophy of nonviolent resistance could be effective not just in the struggle against segregation, but also in the struggle against militarism, and in the struggle against economic injustice.

Street Spirit: What led you to make Martin Luther King’s vision of nonviolent movement building such a central part of your activism and your life?

Kazu Haga: I took my first two-day training in Kingian Nonviolence in the fall of 2008 from Jonathan Lewis when I was living in Oakland. We were both working with an organization called The Gathering for Justice founded by Harry Belafonte. Kingian Nonviolence was to be one of the core strategies for that group.

Portrait of Kazu Haga; photographer unknown

So I took the workshop from Jonathan and I told him at the time that this philosophy was something that I always knew but just didn’t have the language to articulate. Jonathan Lewis had already been working with Bernard Lafayette for about 10 years at that point.

So after I took that training, it was weighing heavily on my mind, and then about two months later, Oscar Grant was shot. [Editor’s note: Grant, an African-American man, was fatally shot by Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) police officer Johannes Mehserle in the early morning on New Year’s Day 2009 at the Fruitvale BART Station. TM]

I ended up on the steering committee of the Coalition Against Police Executions (CAPE), which was doing all the mobilizations after the shooting. So this philosophy of nonviolence was really heavy on my mind during that whole campaign and I really started to see how the anger and, at times, the hatred that was within the movement was starting to impact our work. The internal dynamics of our movement were starting to have an effect on the external impacts of the campaign.

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Bringing Dr. King’s Message to a New Generation

by Terry Messman

This is how a legacy is passed on to a new generation: Martin Luther King gave his life spreading the message of nonviolence. After he was assassinated, Bernard Lafayette picked up the fallen torch, and passed it on to Kazu Haga and Jonathan Lewis. Now they are sharing this vision with the next generation.

Kazu Haga (left) holds a nonviolence workshop; East Bay Meditation Center; Courtney Supple and Rebecca Speert listen.

Over the past year, the Positive Peace Warrior Network has conducted workshops in the strategy, philosophy, and ethical values of “Kingian Nonviolence” for more than one thousand people, including high school students, grandparents, prisoners in local jails, young people of color living in dangerous neighborhoods, Occupy activists, and organizers involved in many social change movements.

The Positive Peace Warrior Network (PPWN) defines “Positive Peace” as peace with justice for all because Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. taught that, “peace is not only the absence of violence, but the presence of justice.”

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Occupy Our Homes Atlanta

by Terry Messman

Occupy Our Homes Atlanta is a great sign of hope for all people caught up in the shattering experience of eviction. Their actions give us hope that we can overcome, no matter how powerful and well entrenched the banks may be, no matter how many lawyers and lobbyists they employ.

After Rev. King was assassinated in 1968 while organizing the Poor People’s Campaign, he was buried in Atlanta. His widow, Coretta Scott King, established the King Center in Atlanta to preserve and pass on his legacy of nonviolent resistance to the interrelated evils of poverty, racial discrimination and militarism.


Prisoner #7089, Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., mug shot taken by police after his arrest during Montgomery bus boycott.

Rev. King was assassinated while trying to mobilize poor people in a massive campaign of nonviolent resistance to secure affordable housing for all, full employment and adequate income for those unable to work; the Economic Bill of Rights for the Disadvantaged. When King was buried in Atlanta, his work was memorialized in the city of his birth, but the hopes for a Poor People’s Campaign seemingly were buried with him.

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Legacy of the Civil Rights Movement: The Street Spirit Interview with Dr. Bernard Lafayette

by Terry Messman


Dr. Layfayette discusses nonviolence with activists; International Day of Peace, Sept. 2012. Photo by Howard Dycoff.


From my conjecture and my observations, the assassination was designed to stop the work of Martin Luther King. And the reason I went and prepared myself for this work is because I wanted to make sure that those who attempted to assassinate Martin Luther King’s dream — missed.” Dr. Bernard Lafayette


Street Spirit: You were the national coordinator of the Poor People’s Campaign. How did you become involved, and in light of Martin Luther King’s assassination in April 1968 before it could even be launched, what do you feel about its outcome?

Dr. Bernard Lafayette: At that time I was working with the American Friends Service Committee in Chicago. They had hired me as director of the urban affairs program, which was the first urban affairs program the Service Committee had. We originally set it up for three months to see what would happen. As a result of the work we did in Chicago for three months, they hired me permanently.

So I continued as the director of that urban affairs program and we established other urban affairs programs around the country. The reason the AFSC wanted to do this was to experiment with nonviolence in the northern urban areas to see how nonviolence could apply to the violence in the North.

What we did was organize gangs and we got them involved in the movement. We trained gang members from the West Side of Chicago because they wanted to be involved. So we trained them to be nonviolent marshals on the marches for fair housing because they already were an organization and they had leadership.

They had already encountered many scars from past activities, and so they could knock down the bricks and bottles and missiles and things that were thrown at the marchers. They would be a wall between the marchers and the hecklers.

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“When planted in the garden, the mustard seed, smallest of all the seeds, became a large tree, and birds came and made their home there.” Luke 13:19

“For me whatever is in the atoms and molecules is in the universe. I believe in the saying that what is in the microcosm of one’s self is reflected in the macrocosm.” M. Gandhi