James Lawson Award Honors Four Resisters

Nathan Schneider, June 23, 2011

On June 23rd, the International Center on Nonviolent Conflict presented its first James Lawson Award for Nonviolent Achievement—or, rather, awards. The ceremony took place over lunch in a multi-purpose room at Tufts University, midway through ICNC’s annual, week-long Fletcher Summer Institute for the Advanced Study of Nonviolent Conflict. All four Lawson Award winners are taking part in FSI this year, and all four are women: Mary King, Ghada Shahbender, Lhadon Tethong, and Nada Alwadi. 

FSI has gathered speakers and participants from across the globe, from Burma, to Madagascar, to Sweden, to Azerbaijan. They’re activists, scholars, journalists, resisters, jailbirds, exiles, and a clown. In a room where heroism is pretty much the norm, the mood can sway quickly from hope to frustration, from celebration to mourning. In a moment of laughter, you might even be tempted to think that heroism is easy, until you hear another story that makes you remember how painfully, unspeakably hard it is, and the toll it takes.

Over the course of the week they’ve told stories about beatings, imprisonment, interrogations, victories, absurdities, and homesickness. There have sometimes been a few tears—but they’re not an ordinary sort of tears. Coming as they do after long days of discussion about the strategies and tactics of resistance, they’re laced with very practical, hard-earned hope. There is faith in these rooms, but with reason.

Jack DuVall, president of ICNC, introduced the winners, and Rev. James Lawson himself handed them their plaques and certificates. Lawson was one of the great strategists of the civil rights movement, best known for his role in the Nashville lunch counter sit-ins. 50 years ago to the day, he was taking part in the Freedom Rides. By then he had already been a conscientious objector during the Korean War and traveled to India to study Gandhian nonviolence.

Mary King, who worked with Lawson and SNCC in the civil rights movement, was honored not just for her activism but for her “great intellect and scholarship,” as Jack DuVall put it. King is a political scientist who specializes in civil resistance, and on Tuesday she spoke about the First Intifada in Palestine as a nonviolent movement. (She has also contributed to Waging Nonviolence.) “You have no idea how special this is!” she said, embracing her onetime teacher. “50 years—half a century!”

When Ghada Shahbender first began work as an activist in Egypt six years ago, her kids didn’t support her. She lost her job as an English teacher as a result of her activism. “My children were totally against it,” she said. “They had grown up in a culture of fear.” She went through repeated disappointments and frustrations as the regime’s oppression only grew worse. But Shahbender says that “it was worth every minute of every day” when Mubarak finally fell earlier this year. She wouldn’t have guessed it could happen even two months earlier. Her children were there with her in Tahrir.

As a leading organizer in the movement to free Tibet from Chinese rule, Lhadon Tethong is currently director of the Tibet Action Institute, fighting to liberate a land she has never seen. She has been detained for protesting in China and helps to teach new nonviolent tactics to Tibetan dissidents. “I know we can win,” she said in her brief remarks, speaking through tears. “I know we can learn from Rev. Lawson and the struggles of civil rights in this country.”

Finally came Nada Alwadi, a Bahraini journalist who was recently detained and interrogated in her country for contradicting the regime’s misrepresentations of the movement that has risen up against it. All week at FSI, she has been correcting fallacies that appear in the international press about Bahrain. “I was just doing my job,” said Alwadi, also through tears. “I have chosen to report what I have seen.” ICNC is working to help keep her safe in the US.

Lawson took the podium after almost all was said and done, tearing up as well. The strategist noted that he is also a theologian. “If God is,” he said, “then God’s intention is that the human race will tap the infinite potential of being in the likeness and image of life.” There’s no mistaking what form that takes in his mind. He echoed Tethong: “Yes, we will win.”