Teaching Nonviolence for Justice – Kent Wong

Kent Wong is the director of the UCLA Labor Center, where he teaches courses in labor studies and Asian American studies.
He previously served as staff attorney for the Service Employees International Union.
He was the founding president of the Asian Pacific American Labor Alliance and of the United Association for Labor Education and is currently vice president of the California Federation of Teachers.

For more than twenty years, I have had the privilege of teaching a course on “Nonviolence and Social Movements” at UCLA with Rev. James Lawson Jr.

This course has inspired thousands of students to pursue a path towards peace and justice. Rev. Lawson’s life and legacy have advanced a “school to movement” pipeline that has changed the course of U.S. history. From the 1960 Nashville sit-in movement to the recent organizing among undocumented immigrant students at UCLA, the impact of Rev. Lawson and his teachings on nonviolence have been a source of unparalleled inspiration.

Rev. Lawson’s legendary contributions to the freedom struggles in the South are well documented, from his days of organizing with the Little Rock 9, the lunch counter sit-ins, the Freedom Rides, and the Memphis Sanitation Workers Strike.

But what is less known is his leadership in transforming the Los Angeles labor movement, and his influence on a new generation of social justice activists in California.

I first met Rev. Lawson in the 1980’s, when I was staff attorney for the Service Employees International Union. There was a network of young activists who approached Rev. Lawson to learn from his vast experience in the Civil Rights Movement and to see if we could apply those lessons to organizing in Los Angeles. We were pleased that he agreed to meet with us, and we convened for years on a monthly basis at the Holman United Methodist Church.

We called ourselves the “Holman Group,” and our small network included Maria Elena Durazo who was then a union organizer for the hotel workers, Karen Bass who led the “Free South Africa” committee, Antonio Villaraigosa who was an organizer at the United Teachers of Los Angeles, Gilbert Cedillo who was an organizer for SEIU, Gilda Haas who taught at UCLA, Michelle Pritchard from the Liberty Hill Foundation, and Anthony Thigpenn from the “Jobs with Peace” campaign. We never would have imagined the collective impact the Holman Group members would have on social and political change in Los Angeles in the years to come.

The Holman Group was a continuation of Rev. Lawson’s work to teach and mentor others, a process that he began decades before in the South. To this day, he continues to teach at UCLA, and continues to inspire others through his renowned nonviolence workshops.

In 2018, Rev. Lawson received the UCLA Medal, its highest honor. In 2019, he was nominated by Governor Gavin Newsom and inducted into the California Hall of Fame. In 2021, the UCLA Labor Center dedicated the UCLA James Lawson Jr. Worker Justice Center in Los Angeles, the first UCLA institution serving the needs of working class communities of color.

In June 2023, Senator Maria Elena Durazo introduced a Senate Resolution to support nonviolence education in the public schools of California that passed unanimously, and represented a first in our nation. This resolution was inspired by Rev. Lawson’s teachings on nonviolence over the years. The UCLA Labor Center is currently preparing a high school curriculum that would integrate Rev. Lawson’s books on nonviolence, workshop materials, videos, and teachings on the “four steps to a nonviolent campaign.”

In the coming school year, we hope to encourage high school teachers throughout California to pilot the curriculum during Martin Luther King, Jr. Day in January, and Cesar Chavez Day in March. What better way to celebrate two iconic leaders who embraced the philosophy of nonviolence throughout their lives.

Rev. James Lawson Jr. turns 95 on September 22, 2023. On September 23, 2023, we will organize a Nonviolence Teach-in at Holman United Methodist Church, where Rev. Lawson for decades served as pastor.

I will always be grateful for having Rev. Lawson as my teacher, my mentor, and my friend. A highlight of my career and my life has been to have the honor to teach with him, and to publish books featuring his life and work. Those of us who have had the privilege to learn from Rev. Lawson are better human beings as a result, and we will continue his lifelong work to create a beloved community.