This post was updated Dec. 4 at 10:38 a.m.
An acclaimed civil rights activist received UCLA’s highest award for his contributions to civil rights and talked about the urgency of ending violence in America at the award ceremony Wednesday.
Rev. James Lawson received the UCLA Medal, the university’s highest honor, at an event hosted by the Institute for Research on Labour and Employment on Wednesday. The medal has been given to individuals, including presidents, philanthropists and artists, who have demonstrated heroism. Past awardees include Secretaries of State Hillary Clinton and Madeleine Albright, author Toni Morrison, Congressman John Lewis, and President Jimmy Carter.
Chancellor Gene Block said he thinks Lawson is the perfect example of a hero because of his support for nonviolence for over 50 years.
“Heroes have the rare responsibility to hear and heed the calls of conscience, often at great risk to themselves but great benefit to humanity,” Block said.
Lawson has been a professor at UCLA for over 15 years, according to Block, and teaches an undergraduate class on nonviolence and social movements.
Lawson helped organize the Memphis sanitation strikes that occurred 50 years ago. During the Memphis strikes, black sanitation workers successfully pushed to join an organized labor union.
Lawson said he has hope that America will forsake violence, both in terms of civil rights and abroad.
“If we can take the ideas and experiences of the past and use them, we will be surprised at all that can be accomplished,” he said. “We are not where history wants us to be right now, or where creation wants us to be.”
Darnell Hunt, dean of social sciences at UCLA, said Lawson has inspired civil rights leaders and continues to serve as a moral compass for progressive politics today.
“Rev. Lawson, plain and simple, is a civil rights and human rights icon,” he said. “He helped to develop strategy for Freedom Riders who traveled throughout the South and was an advisor to the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee.”
Hunt added Lawson has served as an advisor to California Gov.-elect Gavin Newsom.
Newsom told The New Yorker earlier this month that a meeting with Lawson made him realize his campaign was not about dozens of policy ideas, but about an overall crusade to end poverty, especially of children.
Newsom added Lawson asked him what his purpose in life was, which forced him to think more deeply about his goals.
Abel Valenzuela, a professor of urban planning and Chicana/o studies, said Lawson’s advocacy for workers has inspired his and many others’ views.
“Wages of the people who do work are essential ingredients to justice and community. Hard work pays, not in monetary riches sometimes, but in living a dignified and contributing life,” Valenzuela said.
Hunt added Martin Luther King Jr. once said “Rev. Lawson is the leading theorist and strategist of nonviolence in the world.”
Students and labor advocates demonstrated against the UCLA administration outside the ceremony to protest the perceived hypocrisy of rewarding a civil rights activist, who worked with labor unions for years, while also failing to work with the university’s largest employee union.
The UCLA Labor Center and the UCLA Institute for Research on Labor and Employment will launch the UCLA Lawson Legacy Project by the end of November to celebrate Lawson’s contributions. The Lawson Legacy Project will establish an annual Lawson Lecture on Nonviolence beginning in 2019 and an annual scholarship for UCLA students engaged in the theory and practice of nonviolence.
Lawson said he thinks nonviolent theory is as important now as it was earlier in his life.
“Nonviolence is not just nice words,” Lawson said. “Violence is now threatening the very existence of our planet.”