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The James Lawson Institute (JLI) was established in 2013 by the International Center for Nonviolent Conflict, Washington, DC. It is now independent. The institute offers periodic assemblies for individuals to have an intensive learning experience in the basic theories and practice of the historic technique of nonviolent action. The institute stands in the tradition of Mohandas K. Gandhi, Alice Paul, Rosa Parks, the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Ella Baker, Cesar Chavez and Delores Huerta, the anti-apartheid United Democratic Front of South Africa, and other individuals and struggles that have helped to improve nonviolent resistance as a method for social change.
Founded by the Reverend Dr. James M. Lawson, who was a primary adviser on nonviolent conflict to the two key southern organizations of the U.S. civil rights movement — the Southern Christian leadership Conference (SCLC) and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) — the institute seeks to expand the ability of individual leaders, organizers, and the groups with which they work to achieve justice within a nonviolent framework that can be practically applied by civil society groups in the United States.
We do not deliberate, debate, or study the use of violence or armed insurrections, partly because our institutes last at most five days in length, and partly because violent forms of struggle have been studied extensively in comparison to the research devoted to nonviolent action. Nor do we debate the alleged advantages or disadvantages of a violent wing (radical flank) of a campaign, movement, alliance, or organization; instead, we focus on methods for ensuring nonviolent discipline. This is important not for reasons of ideology, but because the opponent’s revelation of its own ruthlessness or brutality can set forces in motion that may ultimately undermine its political power. Introducing violence into a popular struggle also negates the potential for involving for involving a population in self-reliant civil resistance and diminishes the possibilities for mobilization, recruitment, and development of a mass movement through which the oppressed themselves can become empowered. If anything, our focus has intensified because of recent research showing civil resistance to be more than twice as effective as armed struggle. Moreover, research has shown that campaigns with a violent wing (e.g., black bloc, Antifa) are less effective and undergo diminished recruitment.
Successful applicants who are invited to JLI agree to set aside such debates in our scheduled sessions. (Free time is available for informal topical debates, but the Institute does not attempt to recruit participants who advocate violence.) Our teaching staff is composed of individuals whose experience and study have focused on why and how nonviolent struggle works, and how it can be improved. JLI’s presenters are generally scholar practitioners, who possess firsthand experience, teaching familiarity, and have conducted original research. Our facilitators are seasoned hands-on organizers with tangible and tested track records in civil resistance.
As a small nonprofit teaching institute, the Lawson Institute sponsors periodic learning opportunities for individuals who are already involved in contemporary nonviolent struggles in the United States or have purpose and reason to learn its theories and methods.
The forthcoming institute convenes in Portland, Oregon, April 24 – April 28, 2019.
The term “nonviolent action” is one of the many English-language terms coined by Mohandas K. Gandhi that we use today, referring to what he called a method, process, or technique of struggle. The phenomenon of nonviolent struggle goes back to the ancient world and has been found wherever researchers have searched for it. It is not “the opposite of violence.” It uses a form of power that is universal, sometimes called social power, referring to influences and pressures that can be applied by groups to achieve objectives. It is also called “nonviolent direct action”, because it does not rely on officials, agencies, representatives, or standard institutions of government or politics; instead it takes the group action directly to the cause of the distress or oppression.
The Preamble to the 1776 United States Declaration of Independence holds that governments obtain “their just powers from the consent of the governed.” In other words, the people’s power can be withdrawn. Nonviolent struggles seeking justice and relief from oppression have time and again relied on “noncooperation” with the source of the wrong in organizing the withdrawing of cooperation and obedience. Withholding the “consent” cited in the Preamble is often at the core of nonviolent resistance.
Philosophy and practice are closely related in nonviolent action. Gandhi worked for two decades in South Africa, closely following newspaper accounts of nonviolent struggles elsewhere in Africa, China, Russia, and Europe. The Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., observed African national nonviolent action campaigns in Ghana, Kenya, and Zambia, which resulted in free elections leading to their independence.
During the mid-1950s, a wing of nonviolent direct action began to form within the broad civil rights movement (as opposed to strategies based on legal and other tools), which reflected the spirit and skill of the 1955–56 Montgomery bus boycott. The southern student sit-in campaigns reflected this trajectory as they spread to 100 cities by 1961, explicitly making use of direct action, and they often became spearheads for local justice struggles. Soon including the voter registration campaigns of SCLC and SNCC in the Deep South, these efforts were anything but routine civic initiatives.
Although involving something as basic as the vote, these campaigns for the ballot were in fact direct action because of the sheer danger African Americans faced in seeking the ballot. During Mississippi Freedom Summer 1964, alternative, or parallel, institutions such as freedom schools and an alternative political party were added—a concept originating from what Gandhi called the constructive program—to their use of direct action.
The resulting broad, prolonged movement of nonviolent action cannot be considered mere “protest,” nor was it “witness.” In its scope and scale, the work of this wing became a massive social struggle, resulting in the United States passing its most effective legislation to date in the 1964 Civil Rights Act and 1965 Voting Rights Act, in an enduring effort to make the country inclusive of all its peoples, expanding their exercise of fundamental rights guaranteed under the Constitution, among them access to public accommodations and the vote.
Only in the latter half of the twentieth century did works by social philosopher Hannah Arendt, scholar Gene Sharp, and others such as Adam Roberts, Jacques Semelin, Peter Ackerman, Erica Chenoweth, Maria J. Stephan, Stephen Zunes, Howard Clark, and Mary Elizabeth King began to appear. Their research was built on original analyses and new insights of nonviolent struggles during the same period, including those involving James M. Lawson, Jr., from the United States; Václav Havel in Czechoslovakia; Adam Michnik in Poland; the Pastors’ Movement of East Germany; Genaro Arriagada in Chile; and leaders of “Otpor!” (“Resistance!”) in Serbia.
Political scientists Erica Chenoweth and Maria J. Stephan have found that nonviolent campaigns succeed more than twice as often as armed struggles, even in repressive non-democracies. In studying 323 nonviolent, violent, and mixed movements between 1900 and 2006, they realized that nonviolent campaigns succeeded 53 percent of the time versus 26 percent for armed insurrections. Their 2011 book Why Civil Resistance Works: The Strategic Logic of Nonviolent Conflict concludes that a major explanation for this relative success is that “moral, physical, informational and commitment barriers to participation are much lower for nonviolent resistance than for violent insurgency.” They believe this to be chiefly attributable to movements’ abilities to recruit significantly larger numbers of participants than armed insurgencies, with nonviolent campaigns on average being four times larger than violent struggles or guerrilla warfare.
Their work is given further meaning by authors such as April F. Carter, Christian Davenport, Jack DuVall, Sekou Franklin, Daniel Hunter, George Lakey, Hardy Merriman, Bill Moyer, and Michael Randle.
In 1964, when he received the Nobel Peace Prize in Oslo, Norway, the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., declared, “I venture to suggest . . . that . . . nonviolence become immediately a subject for study and for serious experimentation in every field of human conflict, by no means excluding relations between nations . . . which [ultimately] make war.” In the decades since, however, nonviolent civil resistance has never been allocated the funding for research that was given to fields such as international development, environmental degradation, human rights, aspects of national security, and building democracies abroad.
JLI seeks to remedy this scarcity by periodically assembling scholar practitioners, leaders, organizers, and activists who are committed to pursuing their goals through nonviolent action to study and practice together. With Dr. Lawson’s close involvement, JLI is a unique setting where one can learn the theories and strategy of nonviolent action. It is not, however, an educational environment for debating violence and nonviolence. JLI convenings focus on knowledge and application of nonviolent civil resistance.
This does not mean that consideration of the range of forms of violence in our society are not important or do not deserve your attention. It is important to understand diverse forms of violence, ranging from silent but pervasive structural violence to violent struggle as in armed insurgencies. The need to be well-informed about violence is not in dispute. Yet violence has been studied extensively in comparison to the examination of nonviolent action. We have no West Point for nonviolent struggle, no U.S. National Defense University for understanding “people power.” Therefore, the Lawson Institute devotes its attention to civil resistance, which has until recently been understudied and often misunderstood. If you are seeking to learn about violence, or about mixing the methods of violent struggle and nonviolent struggle, you should consider another program.
Our institutes combine presentations of historical cases, background and theory, current problems, and challenges facing contemporary campaigns. We have both presentations and interactive small-group sessions or discussion among the entire group. If you feel uncomfortable with presentations led by experts who have spent years investigating how nonviolent action works, or in examining successes or failures, or if you would regard a PowerPoint to be “talking down” to you, you may wish to consider another teaching and training program.
Small-group breakout sessions are significant for our setting, because practical application deepens learning. Practicing the dynamics of nonviolent action in a safe place can be vital for comprehension.
Unarmed action methods can sometimes lead to endangerment, injury, or attack, which brings us to a basic requirement of nonviolent struggle — it must be carried out without violent retaliation. Indeed, this can be part of how it induces change. Attacks against an unarmed nonviolent campaign in a minority of cases may lead to sympathies from police or security forces flowing toward the nonviolent challengers, when they adhere to strict nonviolent discipline (political jiu-jitsu). Remaining rigorously nonviolent despite reprisals can at times weaken or alienate the pillars of support in a society that are upholding the targeted group. Reactions called “backfire” can occur. We believe it is beneficial to practice in a safe space for such complex learning. If taking part in small-group enactments or dramatic skits for practice causes you to feel unsafe, however, you may choose another opportunity.
Nonviolent action may be legal or extralegal, but cannot take place without replacing submissiveness and passivity with struggle. Active resistance is at the heart of any successful nonviolent movement. Well-ordered nonviolent sanctions can be used to place adversaries in a dilemma that they cannot solve through violence. Planning and preparation are keys to ensuring success. Although spontaneous outpourings and sudden, clever demands of prevailing powers have a place in the roster of accomplishments of civil resistance movements, improvisation is insufficient for achieving long-term, lasting results. Gandhi believed that training in nonviolent struggle was preparation for self-governance. A young leader of Otpor! in the 2000 national nonviolent revolution in Serbia said after it had disintegrated the dictatorship of Slobodan Milošević, “We trained the nation.”
Those of us involved in JLI believe that if the commonplace, extensive use of violence in our society and by our nation is to be meaningfully reduced or abandoned in today’s acute conflicts, a realistic alternative must be presented, understood, evaluated, and accepted. Therefore, we concentrate on understanding nonviolent action. If this is not what you are pursuing, please feel free to seek other options.
Goals of the James Lawson Institute
JLI seeks to emulate in the 21st century what the Reverend James Lawson did in the late 1950s as secretary of the Fellowship of Reconciliation, working with the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. Traveling throughout the southeastern United States, Lawson shared the stories of how the Montgomery bus boycott and the Little Rock Nine succeeded as models for how nonviolent action can produce tangible results despite the impediments of oppressive policies and discriminatory laws. Deciding that preparations should be made for another major campaign of nonviolent struggle, in Nashville, to be organized through a strategic process, in early autumn 1959 Lawson began teaching some 16 weekly workshops, each two-to-three hours long, for students from the city’s institutions of higher learning. The Nashville undertaking would become a central campaign of the freedom movement, nurturing organizers and nonviolent practitioners for the next decade, helping establish and develop SCLC and SNCC, and producing such leaders as John Lewis, Diane Nash, and Pauline Knight. JLI seeks to strengthen and prepare individuals, groups, and alliances for building campaigns and drives of nonviolent action aimed at 21st century injustices.
Goal 1 : To promote an understanding of historical and present-day cases of nonviolent struggles, including Gandhi’s interventions of the 20th century, to throw light on conditions in our society (such as racism, sexism, poverty, militarism, environmental degradation, and plantation capitalism), which demand to be addressed and may with the planning and preparation that we offer be responsive to nonviolent action campaigns.
Goal 2 : To strengthen and share insights, research findings, knowledge, and practical interactive applications for what Gandhi and Dr Martin Luther King Jr both called the “operative technique” of nonviolent resistance.
Goal 3 : To prepare nonviolent practitioners with the background and simulation needed to create wise strategies and sound communications, including language appropriate for what Dr. Lawson calls the “new emerging society.”If you can agree in principle with these brief goals of the institute please resume the rest of the application process. The Lawson Institute uses a regional approach for its recurring assemblies.
The next institute convenes in Portland, Oregon, April 24 – April 28, 2019. If you believe that you would be eligible to apply, two more steps follow: a nonviolent action self-assessment and application questions.