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"Film Review: Love and Solidarity: James Lawson & Nonviolence in the Search for Workers’ Rights,"

by Tyler Barbarin July-September 2016 issue of Poverty & Race

Love and Solidarity is a documentary chronicling the life and work of James Lawson, one of the key players in the nonviolent movement that shaped much of the Civil Rights Movement in America. The film delves into the formation of Lawson’s dedication to nonviolence as a method of organizing and a way of life. This film is a critical look at the dedication to nonviolence as a conscious choice and organizing strategy that was chosen by leaders of the Civil Rights Movement. This look is important because it centralizes nonviolence as more than just a byproduct of the Civil Rights Movement and more than just a tactic of times past. It reintroduces nonviolence as a serious and tactical organizing strategy.

Born in Western Pennsylvania and raised in Ohio, Lawson shares stories of his experiences with racism, emotion and love and how they formed his commitment to nonviolence even before he developed his more complex organizing and racial justice strategies. Lawson was later introduced to Gandhi’s conceptualization of nonviolence practice, a conceptualization that he later brought back to and shared with Martin Luther King Jr. and the major civil rights leaders of the time. Lawson was able to use this doctrine of nonviolence to influence not only the famous Civil Rights Movement of the late 50s and 60s, but also labor rights movements in Los Angeles in the latter half of the 20th century.

The documentary opens with a montage of civil rights era photos and videos, broken up with audio and video of Lawson discussing his commitment to love and dignity as founding principles of his work. Then we are introduced to how Lawson found his way into the Civil Rights Movement alongside leaders like Martin Luther King Jr., as a participant, organizer and leader. Next the film provides two concrete examples of Los Angeles based labor movements that James Lawson helped shape—the Latino Workers Movement and the Janitorial Workers Movement.

The film emphasizes the need to ground ourselves and our movements in love and compassion. James Lawson maintains that commitment to making the world a better place must come from a commitment to seeing every human as deserving of justice and equality. Beyond this, his personal journey towards social justice places economic justice as the central tenet of civil rights. The film uses several case studies of movements and coalitions that Lawson had a hand in strengthening through his commitment to economic justice, human dignity and nonviolence. These case studies were in the Los Angeles area and strove to achieve economic justice and workers rights for low-income and immigrant workers. Lawson motivated organizers to utilize nonviolent tactics to engage large audiences and aim for justice through economic compensation.

The film highlights the expertise of important civil rights actors past and present (James Lawson, Maria Elena Durazo, Kent Wong, Mario De Leon and Isle Escobar) and provides interviews and perspective on several levels of justice work. The interviewees discuss the work that Lawson was doing and how it was historically significant in the era of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. They reflect on the importance of nonviolence and a reframing of social justice as the search for dignity in reshaping the labor movement in Los Angeles. The film also presents the implications of Lawson’s teachings on movements like the Dream Act and immigrant workers movements. Viewers are allowed room to extrapolate the positions taken in the examples provided to future economic justice and labor movements.

The film’s positioning of activists from the Civil Rights Era alongside student activists from current movements speaks both to the lasting passion for justice that Lawson himself holds, as well as the maintained place of nonviolence in the continuum of the work. It also provides prescriptions on how to increase the participation and followership of the current movements.

Love and Solidarity clearly articulates the applications of nonviolent action within the civil rights movements during the latter part of the 20th century. Lawson is a believer that the method of nonviolence is the most salient and impactful in creating a more just society. In its push for nonviolence, the film leaves little space for discussion of alternative or concurrent methods of organizing and political strategy. In the beginning, Lawson discusses how he saw a need for nonviolence, because he believed the actions of pre-civil rights activists insufficient to effect long lasting change. Fifty years after some of the most significant movements utilizing non-violence as a central strategic theme, long lasting change in some ways has still evaded realization in many areas of society. Re-examining non-violence in the 21st century and how it would be defined and utilized today could have added a further platform for discussion and action.

“Love and Solidarity: James Lawson & Nonviolence in the Search for Workers Rights,” is a documentary film directed by Michael Honey and distributed by Bullfrog Films. More information is available at

Tyler Barbarin is Administrative & Research Assistant at PRRAC and Editorial Assistant for P&R.

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