By Peter Kelley, UW Office of News & Information
UW Tacoma historian Michael Honey has teamed with cinematographer and filmmaker Errol Webber to produce a documentary about the life of Methodist minister and civil rights activist Rev. James Lawson.
“Love and Solidarity: Rev. James Lawson and Nonviolence in the Search for Workers’ Rights” will be shown at 6:30 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 29 at Carwein Auditorium. The screening is free and the public is welcome.
A panel discussion will follow the film, moderated by UW Tacoma director of urban studies Ali Modarres.
The film premiered in Tacoma in February; it will be screened in Seattle at 7 p.m. Oct. 28, at the Ethnic Cultural Theater, 3940 Brooklyn Ave. NE.
Honey co-produced the film with Webber, a cinematographer who won an Academy Award for his cinematography on the short 2010 film “Music by Prudence.” Honey said Adam Nolan, a graduate in history from UW Tacoma, did research for the documentary as well.
In comments cited on the film’s website, Premilla Nadasen, associate professor of history at Barnard College, called it “a must see for students, teachers and activists to think about the legacy of civil rights activism and to understand the roots of contemporary political organizing.”
What brought you to this film?
For thirty years I have been writing books using a lot of oral history about the interconnection between labor and civil rights history. In Going Down Jericho Road: the Memphis Strike, Martin Luther King's Last Campaign, James Lawson makes the observation that we do a disservice to Dr. King when we type him only as a civil rights leader. A nonviolent leader has an all-encompassing critique linking racism, poverty, war, and other structures of violence, and counterpoises to those structures movements of love and solidarity. My work has always connected the past to the present, in terms of thinking about how we can learn something from the past to help us organize for justice today.
How did you get involved in interviewing James Lawson? Can you tell us about him?
I served as an advisor to the Fetzer Institute in Michigan, which spreads the value of love and forgiveness and looks for exemplars of those values in the world today through conferences, writing, seminars, and films. I naturally thought of James Lawson as the subject for a film. He just turned 86 when I interviewed him for this film. His life takes us back to his imprisonment as a conscientious objector during the Korean War; as a student of Gandhi in India; as the teacher of nonviolent direct action in the Nashville sit-in movement and the Freedom Rides in 1960, mass movements throughout the South, and then the Memphis sanitation strike. He brought King into that struggle and they ultimately won, despite King's assassination.
Like King, one cannot simply think of Lawson, an African-American Methodist minister (the son and grandson of Methodist ministers, and great0grandson of an escaped slave), as a "civil rights leader." The Methodist Church moved him to Los Angeles in 1974, and for the last thirty years he has helped to invigorate movements in solidarity with peasants in Central America, with black and immigrant workers in Los Angeles, and with the Dream Act students fighting for a pathway to citizenship. Lawson is primarily a teacher of how to organize around values of love and solidarity, but one arrested many times for taking a stand.
How does this film apply to our current heated discussions of race and equality?
The film, in 38 minutes, helps us to get a grasp on how racism and structures of power are interconnected, and also how many movements over time have challenged those structures and put forth a positive philosophy of change. It especially speaks to organizing poor workers in the civil rights movement tradition of direct action in order to challenge economic and racial inequality and oppression. There are three strands in the film, about civil rights, immigrants, and labor organizing. People take various insights from those struggles. I have shown it to University of Missouri students who protested in Ferguson, to union organizers at AFL-CIO headquarters in D.C., and to people at the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis. The film always makes for intense discussions about the present.
Our film team wanted to make Rev. Lawson's insights available to the current generation fighting to make sure black lives matter, to organize against economic inequality, and for worker and immigrant rights. Actually, his nonviolent philosophy of love and solidarity applies to all people organizing for nonviolent social change.
Errol Webber, your co-producer, was part of a team that won an Academy Award for best short documentary in 2010. In making this film, who did what?
My co-producer Errol Webber is a young black man, second generation from Jamaica who grew up mostly in Baltimore. He is now making films in Hollywood. He helped me to put this project together, handled the camera and organized the film; his editor Adam Mizrahi did an amazing job; we all did the storyboard and editing. Adam Nolan, a history graduate from UW Tacoma, has done unstinting research for the film. I did the interviews and wrote the overview, and directed the production. I now do most of the travel and speaking about the film. It was clearly a group project, and continues to be.
What is your hope for this film, especially at UW?
The University of Washington owns the copyright to this film, since it handled the funding I obtained from the Fetzer Institute. I hope the UW will use it to further an educational discussion about the role of nonviolence, love, and solidarity in remaking our lives on this planet. That's why we are showing it with student and faculty comments at the Seattle and Tacoma campus next week. A book can take years before you get a response, but this film engenders immediate discussion and that's why I so enjoy these showings. It is a strictly non-profit, educational endeavor. We are currently working with the UW's Co-Motion to get the film nationally distributed.
Visit the Love & Solidarity web site; view a preview of the documentary:
John Burkhardt, UW Tacoma Communications, 253-692-4536 or firstname.lastname@example.org