February 23, 2001

M. L. King Recalled 32 years Later

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Rev. James M. Lawson Jr. looked back upon the 36 years following Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s assassination yesterday in Sage Chapel. Citing King’s last published essay, “Where Do We Go From Here: Community or Chaos?” Lawson urged his audience to note the course society has traveled towards chaos.

Lawson noted his connection to the Ithaca community before he began his lecture. His father was a minister in Ithaca, and his older sisters were born in upstate New York before the family relocated to Ohio.

Lawson began his lecture with a short video called “A Force More Powerful,” which outlined the basic structure of the program that he organized in 1960 to desegregate lunch counters in Nashville, Tenn. The video showed a young Lawson at the forefront of a local campaign that drew attention nationwide for its use of non-violent protest. Lawson said that his intent in showing the video was to indicate that ordinary people can reach extraordinary accomplishments if they adopt pure methods and refuse to keep quiet.

Actions by ordinary people was a recurring theme throughout Lawson’s lecture. He indicated that non-violent protest appealed to him, because everyone can participate in the action, including men and women, people old and young.

“Sit-in protests became a nationwide campaign, used in every state of the Union,” he said.

A commitment to non-violent protest is essential in any struggle, Lawson said, noting that “one cannot create a good society out of bad means.”

As a civil rights leader, he learned to apply his form of passive resistance from Mohandas Gandhi while serving as a missionary in India. The protest technique is one of the most important convictions that Lawson shared with King.

When speaking about the current state of American society, Lawson said that “we are closer to chaos than ever before.”

“Our society has become a culture of violence, a culture of racism, a culture of sexism, a culture of greed and a culture of addiction,” he added.

To eliminate the elements he called plagues of society, Lawson said that a common vision is necessary. He intends that vision to replace the current culture with, “a culture of liberty, democracy, justice and community.”

Lawson said that King’s legacy was the struggle to achieve the prophesy of the American nation’s founding documents. King strove to fulfill the promise of the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights.

“If Dr. King were alive today, he would be asking, ‘How do we continue to struggle?'” Lawson said.

The lecture yesterday was sponsored by Cornell United Religous Works and was the second of two lectures about Martin Luther King this semester. Lawson was introduced by Vice-Provost Robert Harris, who called the speaker “a lion of the human and civil rights struggle.” Lawson is currently the Luce Lecturer at Harvard University.

Archived article by Ruthie Wahl