Many know about U.S. involvement in and resistance to the Vietnam War, but few are as familiar with the Korean War. Although the war is commonly accepted to have occurred between June 1950 and July 1953, hostilities near the 38th Parallel actually began in May 1949. Moreover, the Korean Armistice Agreement ended armed hostilities in the Korean peninsula but never actually ended the war -- a technicality that until very recently mandated military service for all South Korean men.
After Japanese Imperial forces left the Korean peninsula at the end of the Second World War, political divisions between Koreans came to a head. By 1948, violent government repression of communists and dissidents led to an atmosphere of distrust and betrayal. When a U.S.-backed Korean general election was announced for July 1948, several significant groups including the Korean communists and many noncommunist Korean politicians refused to participate. A separate government was formed in the northern part of the country, and after months of armed conflict at the emerging border, the northern Korean People’s Army (KPA) made a drive into the south in June 1950. The United States, under the authority of the United Nations Security Council, responded immediately, landing troops within a month of the incursion and kicking the U.S. Selective Service system back into gear. Among the roughly 1.5 million people whose draft numbers were called were James Lawson and Gene Sharp. But unlike most, these two men refused to participate in any capacity.
Born to a Methodist minister, Lawson’s refusal stemmed from the deep contradiction he found between the teachings of Jesus and participation in war. When he received his draft card within the first few months of the Korean War, instead of reporting for duty, 22-year old sociology student James Lawson simply returned the card to the Selective Service Board and was promptly arrested. During his incarceration for draft resistance, Lawson wrote “I’m an extreme radical which means the potent possibility of future jails...” -- foreshadowing his future work in the civil rights movement. After being released from prison in 1953, Lawson went to India as a Methodist missionary and studied Gandhian satyagraha (“truth force” nonviolent resistance). Shortly after returning to the United States, while getting his Master’s at Oberlin, Lawson met a young Martin Luther King, Jr. Recognizing that Lawson had unique expertise to share, King urged him to go South to join the nascent desegregation movement as soon as possible. He settled on Nashville, a segregated Southern city, but one with all the elements that could give rise to change. Within a year, the students he trained started the Nashville Lunchcounter Sit-in Campaign, one of the main sparks which ignited the civil rights movement.
Gene Sharp was similarly born to a Protestant minister, was called for military service during the Korean War, refused to cooperate with the Selective Service Board, and was imprisoned for nine months for his noncompliance. While Sharp was already learning about nonviolent strategy before his incarceration, after his prison term, Sharp continued to develop a pragmatic approach to nonviolent resistance related to but distinct from the more spiritual Gandhian conception. For Sharp, nonviolent action was a means of exerting combative power that could be every bit as aggressive and forceful as war, except without violence. Over the decades, Sharp documented and developed the theory of nonviolent action even further, writing handbooks used by successful nonviolent revolutions around the world to face down and dismantle violent authoritarian regimes: protests from Tiananmen Square to Tehran, revolutions against dictators in Eastern Europe in the 1990s and early 2000s, the Arab Spring and especially the Egyptian Revolution that ousted Hosni Mubarak, and beyond. His theories of “civilian-based defense” as well as the “198 Methods of Nonviolent Action” he assembled have been borne out successfully in the real world for decades, and outside of the United States, his ideas have been considered especially dangerous to authoritarian regimes.
It is no coincidence that both of these influential men were also students and colleagues of the great leftist pacifist leader A.J. Muste, co-founder of the Committee for Nonviolent Action (CNVA) and namesake of the Conference Center at the Voluntown Peace Trust. Lawson joined the Fellowship of Reconciliation (FOR) and the affiliated Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) shortly after his incarceration. Through FOR and CORE, Lawson met Muste, who in turn introduced Lawson to the great organizers Bayard Rustin and James Farmer. In fact, it was AJ Muste and Glenn Smiley who created the FOR Field Secretary position for Lawson to teach nonviolent action in Nashville. Sharp worked as a secretary for Muste after his own prison term, and was active with the early CNVA as an activist until he turned to academia, becoming a researcher of nonviolent movements. After some decades out of social movements, Gene Sharp ultimately returned to the Voluntown Peace Trust for the CNVA 50th anniversary in 2010.
The draft resistance of James Lawson and Gene Sharp led both men to cross paths with other influential leaders of justice, and to do foundational and revolutionary work that continues to reverberate in the United States and around the world. In South Korea, where military service for all men ages 18-28 has been mandated since the Korean Armistice Agreement, conscientious objection to military service was not recognized until very recently. Refusal meant multiple prosecutions, repeated fines, and/or imprisonment. But in June 2018, the South Korean Constitutional Court ordered the government to recognize conscientious objection as a valid reason to refuse conscription, and in January 2021, the first South Korean conscientious objectors on non-religious grounds were accepted for alternative service. These victories were made as a result of 20 years of organizing by World Without War, a South Korean affiliate of War Resisters’ International. With the possibility for Korean reunification now closer than at any time since the Korean War, it is clear that a conversion from military readiness to community-building, social healing, and coalition-based nonviolent resistance to further injustice will be necessary to successfully integrate the divided states. With conscientious objection now legally recognized in South Korea, and the history of war resisters in the United States making such immense contributions to domestic and international justice, might this development in South Korea form new leaders of a nonviolent action movement?
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Dickerson, Dennis C. "James M. Lawson, Jr.: methodism, nonviolence and the civil rights movement." Methodist History, vol. 52, no. 3, 2014, p. 168+. Accessed 6 May 2021. https://go.gale.com/ps/anonymous?id=GALE%7CA378369331&sid=googleScholar&v=2.1&it=r&linkaccess=abs&issn=00261238&p=AONE&sw=w
“James Lawson.” SNCC Digital Gateway. Accessed 4 May 2021. https://snccdigital.org/people/james-lawson/
Roberts, Sam. “Gene Sharp, Global Guru of Nonviolent Resistance, Dies at 90.” The New York Times. 2 February 2018 (accessed 4 May 2021). https://www.nytimes.com/2018/02/02/obituaries/gene-sharp-global-guru-of-nonviolent-resistance-dies-at-90.html
Smithey, Lee. “Gene Sharp has died and the world has lost a global educator.” Peace and Conflict Studies at Swarthmore College. 31 January 2018 (accessed 4 May 2021). https://blogs.swarthmore.edu/academics/pcs/2018/01/31/gene-sharp-has-died-and-the-world-has-lost-a-global-educator/
“South Korea: Conscientious objection on non-religious grounds recognised by Supreme Court and MMA first time.” War Resisters’ International. 15 March 2021 (accessed 4 May 2021). https://wri-irg.org/en/story/2021/south-korea-conscientious-objection-non-religious-grounds-recognised-supreme-court-and
“THIS WEEK’S PROFILE: REV. JAMES LAWSON.” Memphis Public Libraries. Accessed 4 May 2021). https://www.memphislibrary.org/diversity/sanitation-strike-exhibit/sanitation-strike-exhibit-march-17-to-23-edition/this-weeks-profile-rev-james-lawson/
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