For marginalized groups, achieving inclusion – be it political, economic or social – is no easy task; just ask Reverend James Lawson. A leading activist in the American civil rights movement and a longtime advocate of nonviolent resistance, he has been working for decades to break down barriers and create equality, often in highly dangerous conditions. Even after years of struggle, Lawson said, there is still more work to be done.
Lawson addressed The Fletcher School community on May 2 as the keynote speaker for the School’s annual Fletcher Inclusion Forum. Titled “Extreme Inclusion: Development, Dignity, and Financial Services,” this year’s event brought together over 250 scholars, practitioners, investors and students for two days of discussion on how financial services can help eradicate poverty and promote wellbeing across economies. The conference was hosted by Fletcher’s Institute for Business in the Global Context in partnership with MasterCard Worldwide and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.
A disciple of Martin Luther King, Jr., Lawson was a leading organizer in the U.S. South throughout the 1950s and 60s and played an instrumental role in planning the Nashville lunch counter sit-ins, one of the most important nonviolent demonstrations of the era. He also worked on the famous 1963 March on Washington and other campaigns in Birmingham and Little Rock.
Lawson drew on his deep experience in non-violent strategy and advocacy for political and economic inclusion to address how society can create conditions for other kinds of inclusion, such as class and international economic equality. A key part of that process? A willingness to upend the status quo.
“Dismantling the present thrones is a critical pathway to creating radical and extreme inclusion of all people in this country as well as in other countries,” he said.
The financial services industry has a specific role to play in enabling people to demand inclusion, Lawson added.
“If the banking and financial services industry wants more business, you need to see to it that circumstances in countries around the world are changed so more people can work, and have access to the tools they need to … sustain their families and communities in the ways they want,” he said.
Lawson also argued that support for grassroots, nonviolent movements throughout the world is crucial for promoting “extreme inclusion.” He described the process of nonviolent resistance as “the best means by which we can break the walls that divide us and harm us.”
He also noted that there are a number of obstacles still preventing full economic and political inclusion in the United States.
“Inequity continues to increase in the U.S., and our economic order has emphasized producing billionaires rather than feeding the hungry or ensuring that every child has a chance to be educated,” Lawson said. “Young people need the full support of our tax system, to gain the education they need for the 21st century and beyond.”
Lawson also argued that racism, sexism and violence “create chaos in America rather than truth and community,” and “must be dismantled.”
Ultimately, though, Lawson was optimistic about the capability of individuals to “face the old tyrannies” and break down social or economic barriers.
“The exceptionality of the American people today is not because of our military powers, not because of our massive wealth,” he said, ”but because we’ve been engaged in a journey of trying to move from a repressive to an open society … engaged in an experiment that we can do self-governance; we can become a people where there is justice, equal treatment and liberty.”
-- Emily Simon, MALD 2013