James Lawson's Speech at Shaw University: Deconstructing Conflicting Ideologies to Help Establish the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee

Open Access
Miller, John Oliver
Area of Honors:
Bachelor of Arts
Document Type:
Thesis Supervisors:
  • Jack Selzer, Thesis Supervisor
  • Marcy North, Honors Advisor
  • Civil Rights Movement
  • Rhetorical Analysis
  • James Lawson
  • SNCC
On April 15th, 1960, Reverend James Lawson delivered a keynote address to an assembly of students at Shaw University. The students had arrived at Shaw in response to the imperfectly coordinated sit-in movement that had begun less than two months earlier. This thesis will enumerate the various challenges Lawson had to overcome in his speech in order to convince the students to create the first student-led civil rights organization. In particular, Lawson had to convince the students to adopt an organizational mission of nonviolent direct action – a strategy that conflicted with the legal maneuvers of traditional civil rights organization such as the NAACP. Moreover, Lawson’s belief that the students should form a civil rights organization free from adult intervention, opposed Martin Luther King Jr.’s opinion that the student movement should act as an auxiliary branch of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. Therefore, Lawson had to employ various rhetorical strategies in order to unite a student-led movement under the philosophy of nonviolent direct action. Specifically, Lawson employed language that extended the breadth of the student movement into the realm of spiritual/moral redemption and portrayed adult civil rights activists’ tactics as inadequate compared to the potential of the sit-in’s nonviolent direct action approach. In total, Lawson delivered an impassioned speech that would unite the student-led movement under the philosophy of nonviolent direct action. His speech reaffirmed the students’ commitment to the sit-in movement, united the student organization under the banner of Christian nonviolence, and established the student movement’s autonomy from adult activists. In doing so, the thesis testifies to the complexities of decision making that civil rights activists had to make during the Civil Rights Movement.