Interviews

Making Our Country a Better Country: The Fellowship of Reconciliation Interview with James Lawson

by Diane Lefer

Poster art courtesy fabiusmaximus.com

Editor’s Preface: Martin Luther King, Jr. called James Lawson “the world’s leading theorist and strategist of nonviolence.”  To Congressman John Lewis, he is “the architect of the nonviolence movement.” Jesse Jackson calls him simply “the Teacher.”  According to author David Halberstam, in his study of the Civil Rights Movement, The Children he was as responsible for sowing the seeds of change in the South as any single person, except perhaps Martin Luther King. This is the third in our series of interviews with Rev. Lawson. Please see the note at the end for further information, and acknowledgments. JG

Diane Lefer: You’ve said we have sufficient activism in this country to have a better country than we have. What are we getting wrong?

James Lawson: Activism has not been appropriating and practicing enough the Gandhian science of social change. What Gandhi called nonviolence or satyagraha – soul force – is both a way of life and a scientific, methodological approach to human disorder. It is as old as the human race and can be found in the oral and written history of the human family from way back. Then Gandhi began to put together the steps you need to take to create change. He is the father of nonviolent social change in the same way that Albert Einstein is the father of 20th-century physics – not the inventor, but the person who pulled it together.

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Sending a Mighty Message: The Waging Nonviolence Interview with James Lawson

by Nathan Schneider

Portrait of James Lawson courtesy Vanderbilt University, vanderbilt.edu

Editor’s Preface: James Lawson was one of the chief organizers of the Civil Rights Movement, especially of the Nashville lunch-counter sit-ins. Throughout his long career he has steadfastly emphasized the need to develop long-range nonviolent strategies, not just short-term tactics. Please see the note at the end for further information about Lawson, Nathan Schneider, links, and acknowledgments. JG

Nathan Schneider: For activists trying to reclaim people’s power among all the powerful corporations at work today, what do you think can be learned from the civil-rights movement? What are the lessons from your experience?

James Lawson: Well, I think that the main thing that activists must learn is nonviolent philosophy, methodology, techniques, and strategy. They need to work from an investigation and assessment of their local base, determining thereby the skills and techniques that will organize and mobilize people in that local scene. No social movement is going to take place if it doesn’t have roots in what’s going on in Cleveland, Ohio, or Washington, DC, or right across Georgia. That’s how movements take place, and that’s how movements have taken place in the United States—not by national policy, but by local groups assessing their own scene and trying to be real about how to start working.

At the local level, people need to get some processes going that will cut down the sales of certain companies and corporations and begin to send a mighty message. It may not be possible to do that in the first year, but I’d be willing to wager that steady organizing around something specific would begin to have an impact. That’s the first task.

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The Spirituality of Nonviolence: The Soka Gakkai International Quarterly Interview with James Lawson

by SGI Quarterly

Painting by Charlotta Janssen based on mug shots of James Lawson after his arrest for a nonviolent protest in Jackson, Mississippi; courtesy charlottajanssen.com

Interviewer’s Preface: In the late 1950s, James Lawson moved to Tennessee as southern secretary of the Fellowship of Reconciliation, where he began training students in Nashville in nonviolent direct action. Prior to that, he had spent a year in jail as a conscientious objector to the Vietnam War, and had also trained in nonviolence at various Gandhian ashrams in India. Described by Martin Luther King Jr. as “one of the foremost nonviolence theorists,” Rev. Lawson, now in his 80s, still remains a vibrant voice for social justice. SGI

SGI Quarterly: Do you remember a particular moment after you became involved in the Civil Rights Movement when you felt afraid?

James Lawson: I recall a number of moments of fear. But, I should say to you that those are isolated moments, and that from the beginning of my involvement character requirements froze out any fear. I was going to finish my graduate degree and then probably move south to work in the movement. I had spent three years in India, 1953-56, and then came back to Ohio for graduate school. I shook hands with Martin Luther King for the first time on February 6, 1957. By then I had been practicing and studying Gandhian nonviolence for ten years. And so as we met and talked, he said I should come south immediately. I said to him, “OK, I’ll come just as soon as I can,” which meant that I dropped out of graduate school and moved. There was no fear in making that move.

I don’t recall a single moment as I traveled around the South that I was frightened or fearful. And as we began the Civil Rights Movement in Nashville, I wasn’t aware of any moment of fear there either. I was expelled from the university and was made the target of many public attacks.

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Nonviolent Power in Action: The Center for the Study of Religion and Conflict Interview with Dennis Dalton

by Richard Ricketts

Dustwrapper art courtesy cup.columbia.edu.

Editor’s Preface: Dennis Dalton is Ann Whitney Olin Professor Emeritus of Political Science at Barnard College, Columbia University, and a leading authority on Gandhi and civil resistance. Please see the note at the end for bibliographical information, and acknowledgments. JG

Richard Ricketts: Do you see resistance to Peace Studies as a field of study?

Dennis Dalton: That is a hard question. Many universities have institutes and centers that incorporate the word “peace,” such as the Institute of War and Peace at Columbia, but all they typically study is the war side of the equation. Peace is seen as a passive phenomenon, as an absence of war, so it is thought that there is nothing there to study.

I suspect this line of thinking is encouraged, in part, by the large grants that are provided from the Department of Defense. Columbia, for example, has traditionally been funded very liberally by the Defense Department and the money is just not there for peace studies. That is why I was really interested in this program at Arizona State University. The founder of the program Ann Hardt was really committed to peace and peace studies. You need someone like that who can fund these types of programs.

When I went to the instruction/education board meetings [at Columbia], I was told the subject was academically soft, not rigorous enough. What they meant was that they deemed pacifism as a weak, effeminate subject.

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“Nonviolence is a Personal Choice”: The Figure/Ground Interview with Barry Gan

by Brett Keegan

Jacket art courtesy Rowman & Littlefield; rowman.com

Editor’s Preface: Barry Gan is professor of philosophy and director of The Center of Nonviolence, St. Bonaventure University, Saint Bonaventure, New York. The interview was conducted by his student, Brett Keegan, for the open source, academic website figureground.org and posted there October 28, 2013. For further information about Gan and acknowledgments please see the note at the end. JG

Brett Keegan: So, how did you get introduced to peace studies and nonviolent philosophy?

Barry Gan: The long story goes back to when I was a child. I was the only Jewish kid in a neighborhood of all Christians, and had been apprised by my parents that we were sort of different from everybody else in the neighborhood when we moved there when I was about six. And somehow, I always found myself in the role of peacekeeper among friends who were often getting involved with fights. I don’t know if it was out of fear, or just a sense of the stupidity of fights, but I never got involved. I would always try to talk people out of them, talk people through them.

Later, when I was at summer camp and my older brother was at summer camp with me, I remember there was this other kid there who was always getting picked on by everyone. And since I wasn’t from their school, I didn’t know why they were picking on him. I just found it annoying. And I remember challenging the bully at the time and wrestling him to the ground to get him to stop picking on this one kid.

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The Religion of Gandhi: The Wire-India Interview with
Ajay Skaria

by Omair Ahmad

Dustwrapper of India edition courtesy permanent-black.blogspot.nl

Omair Ahmad: It is rare to speak of ‘religion’ in the political domain these days and you mention your own difficulties in breaking out of the secular mould to read Gandhi in this light. Could you explain?

Ajay Skaria: I must confess that like most others who had come of intellectual age as part of the Indian left, I was for long suspicious of Gandhi because of his overt religiosity. Certainly, if you had asked me as late as 2000, whether there was any chance that I would work on Gandhi, I would have emphatically said ‘no.’ And I would have said so partially because both as a college student and later in my work in the adivasi tribal regions, I often encountered too many Gandhians running ashrams that effectively practiced an upper caste Hinduism. Even now, to my mind, his Hinduism as a social phenomenon arguably enabled the later rise of militant Hinduism, Hindutva.

I was drawn into Gandhi’s writings completely by accident. In 2000, I was teaching the English Hind Swaraj in an undergraduate class and a passage from it intrigued me. Since I happened to have the Gujarati text close at hand I consulted it. I had in fact just bought it during my trip earlier that year to Ahmedabad since the person I was then working with, Indulal Yagnik, was first a Gujurati associate and then a critic of Gandhi. There was considerable divergence between the Gujarati and English. As I read more, I realised that the divergences were quite numerous, and it became increasingly clear to me that Gandhi’s writing might be doing something quite different from what he may have intended it to do.

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Nonviolence is the Goal: The Lanternblog Interview with Brian Martin

by Ali

Dustwrapper art courtesy www.bmartin.cc

Editor’s Preface: This interview was conducted by email in 2006. “Ali” is an Iranian blogger and rights activist. His Persian language site can be found at lanternblog.com. As he states in the questions below, his site is censored and the last entry is dated January 2007. Please consult the notes at the end for further information. JG

Ali: Let me start with the basics and as the first question ask you as a thinker and writer on nonviolent movements to give us your definition of nonviolence?

Brian Martin: Nonviolent action includes methods such as petitions, rallies, boycotts, strikes, sit-ins, fasts and setting up alternative political structures. It’s often more informative to give examples of nonviolent action than present a formal definition. These and other such methods avoid physical violence against others, though nonviolent activists themselves may be assaulted or arrested. Nonviolent action is action that goes beyond conventional politics, so it doesn’t include lobbying or voting. Nonviolence can also be something broader, including personal behaviour that avoids oppression and efforts to promote ways of living together that are based on freedom, justice, equality and ecological sustainability.

Ali: I know that you are originally a physicist. As I’m in the field of natural science myself, the next question I ‘d like to ask is how you got into nonviolence research and studies? Can you please explain your starting ambitions for research and studies in this field?

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Advocacy Journalism and the Movement for Human Rights: The Street Spirit Interview with Terry Messman

by Jess Clarke

Homeless in America; image courtesy web.stanford.edu

Interviewer’s Preface: Street Spirit is one of the longest-lived publications on poverty, homelessness and human rights in the United States; it is sold by homeless vendors in Oakland and Berkeley, California, and tirelessly defends the human rights of homeless people. Terry Messman produced the first issue in March 1995, and has edited and designed every issue for nearly 22 years. Please see the note at the end for further biographical details about Messman, and interviewer Jess Clarke. JC

  “What matters in the long run is staying true to the cause of justice. In the end,
that is the very meaning of our lives — whether we keep going, and keep working for peace and justice,
or give up in despair. It’s the question at the very heart of it all.” Terry Messman

 Jess Clarke: As the founder of Street Spirit, you’ve seen some of the important political trends in homeless organizing and human rights advocacy in the Bay Area. Looking at the big picture, when and why did you first found Street Spirit?

Terry Messman: We put out the first issue in March of 1995, so we’ve been going steadily nearly 22 years. It’s one of the longest-lived media of any kind in the nation to document the history of poverty, homelessness, and the movements to overcome economic injustice.

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Gandhi for Today’s World: The Yes! Magazine Interview with Vandana Shiva

by David Barsamian

Seed Satyagraha poster courtesy navdanya.org

Interviewer’s Preface: Vandana Shiva is an internationally renowned voice for sustainable development and social justice. She spoke in New Delhi with David Barsamian, founder of Alternative Radio, during his December 2008 trip to India and Pakistan. Some say terrorism makes Gandhi irrelevant. Vandana Shiva, farmer, seed saver, and global justice activist, says we need him more than ever. Gandhi’s three pillars of freedom are now the keys to our survival. Here then are her thoughts on why Gandhi’s philosophy is still relevant—even in a world where terrorism is on the rise. Please consult the Editor’s Note at the end for biographical information about Vandana Shiva and David Barsamian. DB

David Barsamian: In the wake of the attacks on Mumbai in late November 2008, there was a piece in the (London) Sunday Express, “The Irony Gandhism Presents in Today’s Terror-Infested India.” The writer said, “It is time the government became doubly stern about its steps to combat terrorism. India may be the land of Mahatma Gandhi, but today’s situation warrants crude and cunning ways to counter extremism. That alone can ensure peace, harmony, and joy in the country.” Would you share your thoughts on this?

Vandana Shiva: Unfortunately, “crude” means of dealing with violence and terror just breed more violence and terror. As we saw after 9/11, the war on terror has created more terrorists. I think anyone who says that Gandhi is irrelevant in today’s world doesn’t understand either terrorism, its roots, or Gandhi. Suicide bombers don’t get created out of the blue; they are created as a result of decisions, systems, and processes. It’s very much like weeds in a field. One way to control weeds is by spraying Round-Up pesticides, but then you get Round-Up-resistant weeds, which are even stronger than the original weeds. That’s what is happening with terrorism.

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Seeds of Revolution: The ACRES U.S.A. Interview with Vandana Shiva

by Chris Walters

Photograph of Vandana Shiva courtesy ecofarmingdaily.com

Acres U.S.A.: How should we approach the story of Indian agriculture?

Vandana Shiva: The first thing you need to remember is that India is a land which has been farmed for 10,000 years continuously and sustains more than a billion people on its agriculture. India is the land where the British were the rulers, and in 1891 they sent John Augustus Voelcker to make a survey. He wrote a report on Indian agriculture that was published two years later. He said he could find more ways that Indian farmers could advise Great Britain about how to improve its farming than ways the British could advise India. He wrote that Indian agriculture was not backward, and that in many areas there was little or no room for improvement. Then the imperial British government sent Albert Howard to India in 1905. He arrived to find the fields were fertile. He found no pests damaging the crops, and he decided to make the study of peasant agriculture his profession. The agricultural testament that resulted from his studies became the basis of the organic movement worldwide — the Soil Association in the U.K., Rodale in the United States, all of them came out of Howard’s information, and Howard’s inspiration was ancient Indian agriculture. He so clearly distinguished between, as he said, the agriculture of the Occidental world and the agriculture of the Orient.

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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