The Reverend James Lawson wasn’t mincing his words. “This is the first tyrant at this level we’ve ever had.” The keynote speaker at this year’s annual Martin Luther King Jr. Day celebration at the Arlington Theatre, Lawson described President Donald Trump alternately as “a force of spiritual wickedness” and “Tyrant Number One.”
Lawson, now a professor at Cal State Northridge, first met King in 1957, having spent the previous five years studying nonviolent protests from Chicago to South Africa. Lawson would quickly emerge as one of King’s key strategic co-conspirators when it came to bus boycotts, sit-ins, and freedom rides in the subsequent years.
King, Lawson said, was the first major voice in “all Western civilization” to warn about the pitfalls of violent protest. “It does not create communities where human decency is respected and exalted,” he said to an audience of several hundred who occupied about half the seats in the Arlington.
Lawson also took pains to stress the importance of Rosa Parks, whose refusal to ride in the back of a bus triggered the bus boycotts in Birmingham, Alabama, frequently mentioning her name in the same breath as King’s.
Americans living today did not create the systems of racism and sexism, but they have definitely inherited it, he said. Californians need to recognize their own legacy of racism — begat, he said, by real estate housing covenants instead of Jim Crow laws.
The most pressing challenge, he said, is defeating Trump in 2020 and by “tens of millions of votes,” not the three million by which Democrat Hillary Clinton won the popular vote in 2016. The choice, he said — borrowing a line from King — is between “co-annihilation and co-existence.”