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An evening with Rev. James Lawson, Civil Rights icon and founder of Communities of Shalom

Editor’s Note: Last month, CTC had the honor of hosting noted Civil Rights leader and pastor Rev. James Lawson for a special gathering of the Shalom Zones and our community supporters. In addition to his work during the height of the Civil Rights movement, Rev. Lawson was one of the visionaries behind the Communities of Shalom movement. This post contains an edited version of introductory remarks given by CTC’s board chair, Suzanne Bonefas, that evening, along with photos of Rev. Lawson visiting with several of the Shalom Zone leaders.

All photo credits to Katie Barber Photography.

Good evening everyone! I’m Suzanne Bonefas, Chair of the Board of Directors for CTC and I’m so thrilled to see everyone here for this special evening. Welcome!

I’m so honored and humbled to have the privilege of introducing an icon of the Civil Rights movement and social justice causes, including the Communities of Shalom movement.

When I moved to Memphis in 2005, my job was to help create an online archive of primary materials for Memphis history, particularly the Civil Rights era, which we call the Crossroads to Freedom project. The very first materials I explored were interviews created by the Memphis Search for Meaning Committee in the late 60s and early 70s, all of which we added to the archive in collaboration with the University of Memphis several years ago. These include 13 interviews with Rev. Lawson, which served as my earliest introduction to Memphis civil rights history and to his leadership role in the movement and the Memphis sanitation workers’ strike.

As I read transcripts of so many interviews, Rev. Lawson’s words in particular helped me understand the humanity of the Civil Rights movement, and I gained such an appreciation for him and his role – the brilliance of strategy, depth of compassion (he was always thinking about the welfare of the march participants), the incredible amount of work that went into planning and execution of events, and most of all what it meant to be absolutely committed to a cause. And regarding commitment, what that really meant – that you had to accept and make peace with the real possibility of death. I have often reflected on that level of commitment and struggled with how I could possibly truly understand what this means. And I don’t believe I can. As a white person, I can admire and be inspired, but I can’t experience what it means to be in the position Rev. Lawson and others were in and to continue unwavering in his commitment to what he calls “God’s politics” and his call to serve by sewing the seeds of truth to live out the will of God.

It is fitting for an audience brought together by CTC, among them many Shalom Zone members, to hear from Rev. Lawson not only because of his role during the civil rights movement in Memphis and the approaching 50th anniversary of the Sanitation Strike and not only for his commitment to social justice throughout his career, but also for his specific role as one of the visionaries who gave birth to Communities of Shalom. In the spring 1992, in the aftermath of the acquittal of the police officers who brutally beat Rodney King and the subsequent uprising in Los Angeles, it was Rev. Lawson who led the Los Angeles contingency at the United Methodist Church General Conference meeting, where he delivered a report that led to the creation of the first Shalom Zones. The first ever Shalom Zone was in South Central LA, followed by 7 more in LA and 3 in the Bay Area. A total of at least 85 followed over the years, including the 5 Shalom Zones supported by CTC and still active in Memphis today.

From one of the Memphis Search for Meaning interviews, this one from July of 1970, here is Rev. Lawson’s description of what it was like to be in the Mason Temple on the night of April 3, 1968 when Dr. King delivered his famous "Mountaintop" speech:

In the church there was a wonderful kind of feeling. I can’t remember the details. It was much too mystical. On the one hand the thunder was going and the rain and the lightning but on the inside there was 3 or 4 thousand people who felt very much at home with each other and with the world, even though we were amidst a great struggle and tension, there was a great feeling of oneness and singularity of mind, a great enthusiastic spirit, a great warmth.

That to me describes the essence of shalom, a one-ness of community that many of you gathered here today know all too well.

Please join me in welcoming the Rev. Dr. James Lawson.

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