Filmmaker Dawn Porter on Why Civil Rights Giant Rev. James Lawson Deserves to Be Remembered Alongside Martin Luther King Jr.
Dawn Porter is a filmmaker whose latest project “The Lady Bird Diaries,” an all-archive documentary about Lady Bird Johnson, former First Lady of the United States, will debut at the SXSW Film Festival. Her four-part documentary “Supreme” explores the history of the United States Supreme Court and the legal battles that have shaped America. Porter’s other projects include the next installment of the civil rights series “Eyes on the Prize” for HBO.
throughout the month of February, Variety will publish essays by prominent Black artists, craftspeople, and entertainment figures celebrating the impact of Black entertainment and entertainers on the world at large.
During Lyndon B. Johnson’s five years as President of the United States, Lady Bird Johnson recorded 123 hours of recordings intended to reflect her time as First Lady. In my latest film, “The Lady Bird Diaries,” we find a shrewd political observer and strategist who worked alongside the most powerful man in the world during one of the most tumultuous periods in American history. She wasn’t just a supporting actor: Lady Bird had her own agenda, focusing on the environment, women’s rights, and racial and economic inequality. But history did not choose to remember her that way. Wildflowers and the Highway Beautification Act are most synonymous with her name. We often throw around the term “hidden figures,” but Lady Bird wasn’t hidden. It was right there in plain sight, but the story still erased its influence from the narrative.
when Variety asked me to write this column for Black History Month, I thought long and hard about what I wanted to write. This idea of what’s hidden in plain sight in our history — what the history books might have left out — kept coming to my mind. The importance of documenting history has become even more critical as we face attempts to suppress the history of African Americans and other minorities. If politicians like Florida Governor Ron DeSantis ban books, how long until they ban movies? Some Black history is well documented, but some is not as well known. These stories are at even greater risk of being deleted.
That’s why I want to use this column to tell you about Reverend James Lawson.
When we think of the civil rights movement, we think of Dr. Martin Luther King, Rosa Parks and John Lewis (whose story I had the honor of telling in the 2020 film John Lewis: Good Trouble). But there is one name that is often omitted from the list of civil rights giants and heroes that children learn about in school: the Reverend James Lawson.
Who was Martin Luther King Jr.’s first mentor?
Rev. James Lawson.
Who was John Lewis’ teacher?
Rev. James Lawson.
Who was the main architect of the nonviolent resistance movement of the civil rights era?
Rev. James Lawson.
I first met Reverend Lawson when I interviewed him for my film. Lawson is now 94 and lives in Los Angeles, more than 2,300 miles from his humble beginnings in Massillon, Ohio. Lawson told me that when he was in fourth grade, another kid called him the N word. Lawson slapped him and proudly went home to tell his mother what he had done. She replied, “Jimmy, what good did that do? There has to be a better way.”
So Reverend Lawson found a better way.
He became a minister and started reading Gandhi, which changed his thinking about the power of resistance. In 1951, he refused to report after being drafted into the Korean War, instead serving 13 months in prison. After his release, Reverend Lawson became a missionary in India and immersed himself in Gandhi’s teachings on the use of nonviolence to achieve social and political change.
Reverend Lawson returned to the United States in 1957 and, at the urging of Dr. King, moved south. King would tell him, “You are in great need. We don’t have anyone like you.”
He taught nonviolent tactics to the Little Rock Nine and, in 1960, began organizing and teaching nonviolent workshops with Nashville-area college students, including a young John Lewis. They would role-play various situations that involved students insulting, spitting and hitting without being able to fight back. Lawson created a highly disciplined movement that went on to liberate downtown Nashville, setting the example for 200 other cities.
Lawson helped organize the 1961 Freedom Rides, traveling from Montgomery, Ala., to Jackson, Miss., where he was arrested for using a whites-only bathroom at a bus stop. In 1968, he invited Dr. King to Memphis to draw attention to the plight of the city’s striking sanitation workers. Dr. King arrived in Memphis and spoke of Reverend Lawson in his “I’ve Been to the Top of the Mountain” sermon. King was assassinated the next day.
History does not honor all its heroes. Even today, names that are familiar risk being erased from certain narratives. Rev. Lawson deserves a chapter in our history books.