Tamara Lawson ’92 on MLK’s core principles of nonviolence
In delivering the 2023 Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Commemorative Lecture at Claremont McKenna College’s Athenaeum, Tamara F. Lawson ’92 urged the audience to recall King’s origin story, which is deeply rooted in his education.
Lawson, the Toni Rembe Dean and Professor of Law at the University of Washington School of Law, noted that King was not “hatched” as an activist dedicated to nonviolence,” nor did he “magically become one of the world’s greatest leaders.” Instead, at Morehouse College, he was trained by “wise professors and intellectual leaders just like all of you.”
“Education shapes individuals,” she said, “but it also shapes social movements.”
King, Lawson explained, learned about the principles of nonviolence from his academic mentors, incorporating them into his thinking and then igniting a movement – one that continues. “I want to impress upon you that the work of Dr. Martin Luther King is not simply historic. It is dynamic and it is part of our American fabric. I encourage you to embrace it, to apply it, and I challenge you even further to adopt the principles of nonviolence in your leadership legacy,” Lawson shared. Nonviolent principles, she explained, champion work that is targeted specifically at defeating injustice but not at defeating people.
A government major, Lawson recalled how both CMC professors and fellow students helped shape own her intellectual growth and thinking, but that her very first visit to the Ath was pivotal. She was inspired in 1988 as she listened to civil rights icon and trailblazer Julian Bond, MLK’s colleague and friend, and a leader in the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, which organized much of the student civil rights activism in the 1960s. “It was right in this room,” she shared, “that my passion for law was ignited.
“It was here at CMC that I learned to be a critical thinker, an independent thinker… it was here as a government major that my curiosity was sparked in laws, and rules, and the exercise of discretion. I still have the dog-eared pages of the Federalist Papers, and De Tocqueville’s Democracy in America in the dean’s suite in Seattle, and I refer to those texts more than you might think.”
“When I lived in Appleby Hall in the 80s, I never envisioned that I would be writing about racial bias in the criminal justice system, or launching a center for social justice, or training new lawyers at the top law school in the Pacific Northwest.”
Why I’m Here
Claremont McKenna student Lucy Jaffe ’27 said the title of Lawson’s talk “drew me in.” She also thought the subject matter would dovetail well with a class she’s taking entitled Race, Religion, and Civil Rights. Also, “I’m a brand-new transfer student and this is my first Athenaeum event, which is exciting.”
Questions From the Audience
George Ashford ’26 PPE Major
Ashford: “Can you elaborate on the principle of nonviolence outside of a protest?”
Lawson: “… you would think of ways to engage your community and to engage the goal of your justice proposition without causing harm by only defeating the issue that's unjust… as opposed to attacking the person, which is what we see a lot of in social media and on the news…”
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