Civil rights icons Rev. James M. Lawson and Myrlie Evers-Williams PO ’68 spoke at Pomona College’s Bridges Auditorium with politics professor Lorn Foster as part of the college’s first annual Payton Lectureship last Saturday.
Evers-Williams and Lawson have both been civil rights activists throughout their lives: Evers-Williams helped end racial segregation in schools and public facilities in Mississippi, while Lawson was instrumental in bringing the philosophy of nonviolent civil disobedience to the civil rights movement.
Lawson said he was inspired by Mahatma Gandhi’s autobiography and Jesus. He wanted to make Americans realize that Gandhi’s message wasn’t foreign but existed in their own tradition and to “unwrap and unravel the dogmatism of early Christianity” to get at Jesus’ core message.
“Martin King urged me to come south because I told him, as far as I was concerned, the Gospel of Jesus was nonviolent,” he told the audience.
Lawson continues to believe nonviolence can be a powerful force for action.
“If we obey the science of social change through nonviolence, we would be surprised by the change,” he said.
Lawson said he is optimistic about the goodness of human character.
“It seems to me that all sorts of people walk through the human plight inspired by its noble aspects. I recognize life as a gift and desire to use it to the fullest,” he said. “I maintain that love and compassion are part of the gift of life.”
Evers-Williams described in detail the horrors of living near the Mississippi delta with a black family during the 1960s, including the murder of her husband, Medgar Evans.
“Medgar was shot down at the door of our home and our children ran out of our home screaming, ‘Daddy, get up!’” she said. “When the police officers finally arrived, I did something I’ve never done before. I cursed them. My emotions had gone beyond the point of being emotions.”
Before Evans died, he and Evers-Williams planned to move to California. After his murder, she chose to come to Claremont, “solely because of Pomona College,” she said. “It was one of the best decisions I’ve made in my life.”
Still, things weren’t easy for her. As the second family of color to ever move to Claremont, she took every opportunity to assert her place in the community, sitting consistently at the front of her Pomona classes.
“It was like, ‘Here, I am! What are you going to do about it?’” she said.
Her son also faced harassment in high school, so she advised him to “stand up for your rights. Be willing to pay the price for it.”
Evers-Williams was recently part of the welcoming group, along with President Donald Trump, for the opening ceremony of two museums in Mississippi. Trump addressed her by her first name, which she said infuriated her. Due to America’s history of demeaning the status of black people, referring to black people by their first names has been a traditional sign of disrespect, she said.
“That was the whole force behind the civil rights movement: Justice, dignity, honor. My husband paid the price so that we could have dignity,” she said.
“We’ve been mistreated constantly by a fundamental denial of our humanity,” he said. “As a pastor, in a black church, we have therefore addressed people as Mr. and Ms., as doctor. We recognize that the dignity has to be re-established because racism has been such a virulent poison.”
During the question and answer portion of the event, Roy Taylor PO ’18 asked how he could make himself a more active source of change in his community.
“Be aware of what is happening and the need for change,” Lawson said. “Positive change does not come about without the involvement of everyone.”
Alexandra D’Costa PO ’20 asked how she could cultivate rage into action.
“Be angry but do no harm. Direct that anger into positive action,” Lawson said.
Lawson added that activists should focus on the difficult problems.
“The campaigns of the fifties and sixties that ignited great change represent those of us who did not go after the easy problems,” he said.
At the request of former President David Oxtoby, the lectureship was named after John A. Payton PO ’73, a lawyer who devoted his career to civil rights.
He is most well known for monitoring South Africa’s first all-race election in 1994 and defeating a challenge to the Voting Rights Act of 1965. While at Pomona, Payton’s activism led to the establishment of the black studies center and the recruitment of more black students.
Oxtoby said he was close friends with Payton and spoke highly of his character.
“Knowing him personally, his warmth and his intelligence came through to me the first day I met him,” he said.
After the event, many audience members said they enjoyed themselves.
“I was really impressed by how much fire for change they still have and how much passion for the college they represent,” Pomona exchange student Thomas Carey said.
Ian Poveda PO ’21 said he appreciated how informative the event was.
“I think it was really great to hear the history in general that people forget. Even at their old age now, they’re still such pioneers,” he said.
Eleanor Foerster PO ’53, an alumna who attended the event, said she was inspired to act in new ways.
“I’m having to figure out another way to be active, make our voices be heard, and make sure it includes everyone,” she said.
Foerster said she had been unaware that it is important to ask for permission to address African-American people by their first name.
“We need to have different conversations about the proper etiquette. We are not aware what different cultures expect,” she said.
Tiger Kaplan PO ’20 was less convinced about the strategic applicability of Lawson’s and Evers-Williams’ actions for today.
“The racism and the oppression that they were fighting is different from what we’re fighting today,” he said. “It was inspiring, however it would be difficult to use their actions as a clear template.”
Foster, however, said he felt that nonviolent civil disobedience is still a powerful tactic.
“Those that are opposed to justice are violent and physical, and I think it shines a bright light on evil,” he said.