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The Man That ‘Pershing Square’ Is Named After Hunted Pancho Villa and Contributed to U.S. Massacre of Native Americans, Now Activists Want to Rename the Space

12:47 PM PDT on September 29, 2021

tudy what General Pershing of the United States did to terrorists when caught. There was no more Radical Islamic Terror for 35 years!” Trump tweeted in 2017. On the campaign trail and during his presidency, Donald Trump referenced General Pershing a few times. The reference sparked outrage in Los Angeles. Social justice organizations started a petition to rename the five-acre square in downtown Los Angeles from Pershing Square to Lawson Square, after Reverend James Lawson. “There is a reason why right-wing figures like Trump reference Pershing, and with high praise, that is because of their hate for Muslims, Mexicans, Native Americans, Koreans, and Filipinos. The very fabric that makes up Los Angeles today,” said Edgar, an L.A. resident and an organizer with the Rename Pershing Square Coalition.  

Pershing Square

The five acres that make up the square was originally named “La Plaza Abaja” - The Lower Plaza. The location acts as a central hub of Downtown Los Angeles and a public transit stop of the Metros Red and Purple lines. It is within walking distance to the Music Center, Financial District, Little Tokyo, and the Arts District. It is also feet away from the Historic Core of DTLA. The public space has also been the focal point for social movements that shape L.A. politics and society. The location is enjoyed by Mexicans, Native Americans, Koreans, Filipinos, Muslims, and all nationalities at the heart of the city. The space is also transformed into an outdoor music venue during the summer and winter wonderland, complete with a public ice rink during the holiday season.  

At the end of World War I, in 1918, the square was renamed to honor General John Pershing, who oversaw the American Armed forces overseas. Part of his military resume included suppressing the uprisings of the Lakota (Sioux) Indians in 1890. Three days after Wounded Knee, where the US massacred hundreds of Lakota people, General Pershing took action in the Ghost Dance War from 1890 - 1891. The US invaded Lakota Sioux reservations, slaughtering many more. Later he was at the forefront of the US-colonial war of the Philippines. In 1916, General Pershing worked in northern Mexico “in pursuit of Villa with the single objective of capturing him,” Pershing was trying to capture and kill Mexican Revolutionary Francisco ‘Pancho’ Villa and crush the Mexican Revolution. “Los Angeles is a diverse city, and having a community space named after someone who has blood on their hands for killing people of color is not what we stand for as a city,” said Rey Ramirez, an L.A. native who attended the press conference. 

The Campaign to Rename Pershing Square ‘Lawson Square’ after Reverend Lawson

On Thursday, September 23, a coalition of organizations in Los Angeles held a press conference. The alliance includes BLM-LA, Koreatown Immigrant Workers Alliance, American Indian Movement-SoCal, MLK Coalition of Greater Los Angeles, Union of Musicians and Allied Workers, and many more. The coalition calls on city officials to rename the square to ‘Lawson Square’ after Reverend James Lawson. The reverend has deep roots in Los Angeles. In 1973, he served as a Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) Los Angeles Chapter board member. He later served as president from 1979 to 1993. In addition, he was pastor of Holman United Methodist Church in Los Angeles from 1974 to 1999. 

Lawson made essential contributions to the civil rights movement. In 1968, Martin Luther King Jr. spoke of Lawson as a “nobleman” in his “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech, “He’s been going to jail for struggling; he’s been kicked out of Vanderbilt University for this struggling; but he’s still going on, fighting for the rights of his people,” said Martin Luther King Jr. “Lawson’s leadership during the civil rights movement is something all Angelenos can be proud of,” said Mike Prysner, journalist and documentary filmmaker of Gaza Fights for Freedom. In 1961, Lawson was a key organizer in the ‘Freedom Riders’ campaign throughout Alabama. He and 26 others were arrested for filling the “whites only” waiting room in Jackson, Mississippi. The Freedom Riders met with Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy, and as a result, President John F. Kennedy ordered that people could sit anywhere. Lawson and the Freedom Riders reversed the “white only” signs, allowing everyone to sit anywhere. A significant victory for the people.         

Honor Them While They Are Alive

“You have to give people flowers while they are living; you can’t just wait for them to be gone and then name something after them,” said Kameron Hurt from the ANSWER Coalition at the press conference. Rev. Lawson is still alive. He is 93 years old. The Coalition to Rename Pershing Square calls on city officials to correct their past. “Los Angeles can join the 168 cities across the US that have removed Confederate monuments in 2020, and L.A. can be proud of being part of this campaign and honor someone who has given so much for Black people, Mexicans, and all people of color here in L.A. and across the country,” said Marissa Sanchez, an L.A. resident, and organizer with the Rename Pershing Square coalition.

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