5 Key Takeaways from the James Lawson Institute


Two weeks ago I had the pleasure of attending the first-ever James Lawson Institute (JLI), sponsored by the International Center on Nonviolent Conflict. If you do not know who James Lawson is, kill your grade school teachers. Rev. Lawson was the main architect of the 1960 sit-in movement in Nashville challenging the segregation of lunch counters. He was also influential in the Freedom Rides and the struggle on behalf of the Memphis sanitation workers. It was he who convinced Martin Luther King to come to Memphis to support that campaign, which eventually succeeded in securing collective bargaining rights and wage increases.

Yet this week-long institute was more about how to change the United States in the present context — granting that progressive organizers, along with politicians, have largely failed to make significant strides in recent decades. For those who are new to strategic nonviolence, I have generated a list of key lessons learned:

1) You do not need to be as moral or committed as Gandhi or Martin Luther King to successfully practice nonviolent civil resistance. You don’t even have to be spiritual.

2) Despite what you might think, history is on the side of nonviolence. Researchers Erica Chenoweth (who is a spectacular person as well as academic) and Maria Stephan have convincingly demonstrated that since 1900, nonviolence has succeeded in toppling dictatorships and otherwise effecting sweeping political change twice as much as violence.

3) Long-term strategic planning is essential for success. Movements cannot get lost in a particular tactic without making it part of a larger strategy (for example, the Occupy Movement got lost in camping).

4) The three biggest indicators that a country is ripe for nonviolent resolution are (strangely enough) increased literacy rates among women, the tenure of the country’s leader, and presence/proximity of fraudulent or contestable elections.

5) While violent repression does reduce a resistance movement’s chances of success, it can backfire and create defections as well as increase support for the movement, particularly if the movement is nonviolent.


Other than Lawson and the amazing staff of the ICNC, my hero of the week (and likely of the year) would have to be Antoinette Tuff, the clerk who saved the Ronald E. McNair Discovery Learning Academy in Georgia by convincing an ex-student turned gunman to surrender rather than shoot himself or others (and somehow remained calm the entire time). If this doesn’t give the pro-gun crowd something to consider as an alternative to an armed guard in every school, I don’t know what will. NRA spokesdouche Wayne LaPierre has been proven wrong (again).


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