Matt Driscoll

Matt Driscoll: UWT professor brings the Rev. James Lawson’s nonviolence lessons into the present

Michael Honey’s film “Love & Solidarity” will be shown at 6:45 p.m. Tuesday at The Grand Cinema.
Michael Honey’s film “Love & Solidarity” will be shown at 6:45 p.m. Tuesday at The Grand Cinema. Courtesy

Through his life’s work, Michael Honey has crossed paths with the Rev. James Lawson a number of times.

Honey is the Fred and Dorothy Haley professor of humanities at the University of Washington Tacoma and a founding faculty member at the school. He teaches labor, ethnic and gender studies, as well as American history. A civil engagement type, and a conscientious objector during the Vietnam War, he’s the kind of guy who’s frequently photographed with an acoustic guitar.

Honey spent some of his early days in the South, as a civil liberties and civil rights organizer, which is where he met Lawson more than 40 years ago.

Lawson, 88, is a famed activist and educator who made a name for himself working in the South with Martin Luther King Jr., specifically during the Memphis sanitation strike of 1968. After relocating to Los Angeles in 1974, he spent 25 years leading the Holman United Methodist Church, before retiring in 1999. Focusing largely on workers’ rights, Lawson is a well-known practitioner of nonviolence.

He provided guidance on nonviolence for the Nashville Student Movement, the Freedom Riders and even King.

Now the UWT prof’s recent academic endeavor — a 38-minute oral history film centered on Lawson’s work in the arena of nonviolence, “Love and Solidarity” — has brought the two together again.

“I’ve been teaching courses (at UWT) — the history of civil rights movement and also a course on MLK — for years. Out of that … came this kind of a teaching part of the course, on what is nonviolence, what does it consist of, what is the practice of it?” Honey told me by phone last week.

“I went back to James Lawson, who I knew when I was a civil rights organizer in the South in the ’70s,” he said.

Good call.

Eventually, funding and support from the Michigan-based Fetzer Institute helped turn Lawson’s nonviolence teachings into a motion picture.

I thought, prior to the election, ‘Well, maybe this film will be kind of dated.’ … But, it turns out it’s right on time, because these issues are clearly not resolved.

UWT Professor Michael Honey

As it turns out, the latest showing of the film — Tuesday night at The Grand Cinema, where it will screen, for free at 6:45 p.m., followed by a post-film discussion — is a timely one.

“I thought, prior to the election, ‘Well, maybe this film will be kind of dated,’ ” Honey said, explaining that the film’s themes center on civil rights, immigrant rights, workers’ rights and labor organizing.

“But, it turns out it’s right on time, because these issues are clearly not resolved,” he said.

In case it wasn’t clear, he was talking about the new Trump administration — and the chill the commander-in-chief’s first two weeks in office have sent through many communities. And while the impact that the president’s policies may have on immigrant and refugee populations has understandably dominated the news cycle, Honey also expects significant challenges under Trump for labor and workers’ rights.

“They’re going to be very anti-labor and anti-union,” Honey predicted, citing as example the nomination of Andrew Puzder for secretary of labor. Puzder has been openly critical of increases to the minimum wage, as well as many of the labor protections instituted under the Obama administration.

“It sort of throws it back on us in civil society to respond,” Honey said.

How can the nonviolence teachings of an original civil rights leader like Lawson be instructive in our current predicament?

Let’s start in 2008, when Lawson was invited to UWT to speak to students.

He defined violence, in broad terms:

“Violence is the use of power to harass, intimidate, injure, shackle, kill or destroy,” Lawson told the audience. “Violence is a misuse of power. And my contention is that while many people may have the power to do such things … they have no right to do such things.”

Then, Lawson defined nonviolence.

“From the perspective of Gandhi, nonviolence is the use of power in order to try to solve and resolve conflicts, and injury, and issues, in order to try heal, to lift, to solidify community,” Lawson told the audience.

So here we are. Where do we go?

Violence is the use of power to harass, intimidate, injure, shackle, kill or destroy. Violence is a misuse of power. And my contention is that while many people may have the power to do such things … they have no right to do such things. … From the perspective of Gandhi, nonviolence is the use of power in order to try to solve and resolve conflicts, and injury, and issues, in order to try heal, to lift, to solidify community.

James Lawson, speaking at UWT in 2008

“Life under Trump, despite him pledging to help workers, will consist of a series of assaults on minorities and working-class and poor people by giving tax cuts to the rich and undermining health, safety, and environmental and labor and civil rights protections,” Honey said. “As Lawson tells us, these are forms of violence.”

“To respond, we need a positive framework that brings people together to reject these policies and build what King called ‘the beloved community,’ based on values of love and solidarity and a recognition that ‘injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere,’ ” he said. “This is what nonviolence is about.”

Having screened the film before, Honey says the conversation “always turns into a conversation about what can we do to promote solidarity and love and in the context of what’s happening.”

“Each conversation … usually moves into a strategy discussion. ‘What should we really do, and how do we do it?’ ” Honey said of what he’s expecting from Tuesday’s event at The Grand.

As for why this type of strategizing is particularly important in Tacoma, he said: “We have a lot of urban-based issues, and I think that the nonviolence philosophy and framework is helpful for people to think about how to move forward in a really positive way, despite the problems that exist. I think, under the current administration, the problems that exist are going to get worse.

“I think it’s the right time to be having this kind of conversation.”

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