Filmmaker Dawn Porter on Why Civil Rights Giant Rev. James Lawson Deserves to Be Remembered Alongside Martin Luther King Jr.

Dawn Porter is a filmmaker whose latest project “The Lady Bird Diaries,” an all-archival documentary about Lady Bird Johnson, former First Lady of the United States, will debut at the SXSW Film Festival. Her four-part docuseries “Supreme” explores the history of the United States Supreme Court and the legal battles that have shaped America. Porter’s other projects include the next installment of the civil rights series “Eyes on the Prize” for HBO.

Throughout the month of February, Variety will publish essays from prominent Black artists, artisans and entertainment figures celebrating the impact of Black entertainment and entertainers on the world at large.

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During Lyndon B. Johnson’s five years as President of the United States, Lady Bird Johnson recorded 123 hours of audio recordings meant to reflect on her time as First Lady. In my latest film, “The Lady Bird Diaries,” we find an astute political observer and strategist who worked alongside the most powerful man in the world during one of the most tumultuous times in American history. She was not just a supporting actor: Lady Bird had her own agenda, focusing on the environment, women’s rights and racial and economic inequality. But that is not how history has chosen to remember her. Wildflowers and the Highway Beautification Act are more synonymous with her name. We often talk about the term “hidden figures,” but Lady Bird was not hidden. She was right there in plain sight, but history still erased her influence from the narrative.

When Variety asked me to write this column for Black History Month, I thought long and hard about what I wanted to write about. This idea of those in our history who are hidden in plain sight — those who the history books might have left out — kept coming to my mind. The importance of documenting history has become even more crucial as we confront attempts to suppress the history of African Americans and other minorities. If politicians such as Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis are banning books, how long until they ban films? Some Black history has been well documented, but some is not as well known. Those stories are in even greater danger of being erased.

That is why I want to use this column to tell you about Rev. James Lawson.

When we think of the civil rights movement, we think of Dr. Martin Luther King, Rosa Parks and John Lewis (whose story I had the honor of telling in the 2020 film “John Lewis: Good Trouble”). But there is one name that is often left off the list of civil rights giants and heroes that children learn about in school: Rev. James Lawson.

Who was an early mentor to Martin Luther King Jr.?

Rev. James Lawson.

Who was John Lewis’s teacher?

Rev. James Lawson.

Who was the chief architect of the nonviolent resistance movement of the civil rights era?

Rev. James Lawson.

I first met Rev. Lawson when I interviewed him for my film. Lawson is now 94 years old and lives in Los Angeles, over 2,300 miles from his humble beginnings in Massillon, Ohio. Lawson told me that when he was in the fourth grade, another child called him the N-word. Lawson slapped him and proudly went home to tell his mother what he had done. She replied, “Jimmy, what good did that do? There must be a better way.”

So Rev. Lawson found a better way.

He became a minister and began reading Gandhi, which transformed his thinking about the power of resistance. In 1951, he refused to report after being drafted to the Korean War, instead serving 13 months in prison. After his release, Rev. Lawson became a missionary in India and immersed himself in Gandhi’s teachings of using nonviolence to achieve social and political change.

Rev. Lawson returned to the United States in 1957 and, at the urging of Dr. King, moved south. King would tell him, “You’re badly needed. We don’t have anyone like you.”

He taught nonviolent tactics to the Little Rock Nine and, in 1960, began organizing and teaching nonviolent workshops with Nashville-area college students, including a young John Lewis. They would role-play various situations that included students being insulted, spit on and hit without being able to hit back. Lawson created a highly disciplined movement that went on to desegregate downtown Nashville, setting an example for 200 other cities.

Lawson helped organize the Freedom Rides of 1961, traveling from Montgomery, Ala., to Jackson, Miss., where he was arrested for using the whites-only bathroom at the bus stop. In 1968, he invited Dr. King to Memphis to bring attention to the plight of the city’s striking sanitation workers. Dr. King arrived in Memphis and talked about Rev. Lawson in his “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” sermon. King was assassinated the next day.

History does not honor all of its heroes. Even today, names that are well known are in danger of being erased from certain narratives. Rev. Lawson deserves a chapter in our history books.

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