Rev. James Lawson, longtime civil rights activist, dead at 95

Rev. James Lawson

LOS ANGELES — The Rev. James Lawson Jr., a civil rights activist who advocated for nonviolent protest and the longtime pastor of Holman United Methodist Church in Los Angeles, died Monday. He was 95.

The Los Angeles Sentinel was the first outlet to report Lawson’s death, saying that he died suddenly from cardiac arrest.

Los Angeles City Councilwoman Heather Hutt confirmed his death in a statement to City News Service.

”Reverend James Morris Lawson was a leader of our community and world, whose messages of love and nonviolence left an indelible mark on the Civil Rights Movement and influenced many,” she said. “I am deeply saddened to hear of his passing, but know his legacy will continue to guide us for generations to come. His message of love will forever live on in every heart he touched. May he rest in power.”

Lawson was pastor of Holman United Methodist Church from 1974 until his retirement in 1999, KTTV reported. A mile-long stretch of Adams Boulevard from Crenshaw Boulevard to Arlington Avenue in front of the church was co-named in January as the Reverend James Lawson Mile.

Lawson was a close adviser to the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., who called him “the leading theorist and strategist of nonviolence in the world,” The Associated Press reported. He met King in 1957 after spending three years learning about Mohandas K. Gandhi’s independence movement.

He was among the “noble men” recognized as leading the fight for civil rights in the 1968 speech “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” in Memphis, Tennessee.

”He’s been to jail for struggling,” King said. “He’s been kicked out of Vanderbilt University for this struggle, but he’s still going on, fighting for the rights of his people.”

Lawson was born in Uniontown, Pennsylvania in 1928. Both his father and his grandfather were Methodist ministers, and he got his preacher’s license in 1947, PBS reported. He grew up in Massillon, Ohio.

He told The Tennessean that his commitment to nonviolence began when he was in elementary school, when he told his mother that he had slapped a boy who had used a racial slur against him.

“What good did that do, Jimmy?” his mother asked.

Lawson said that question changed his life, the AP reported.

He attended Baldwin-Wallace College in Berea, Ohio. When Lawson was drafted by the U.S. Army, he refused to serve due to his belief in nonviolence and was sentenced to two years in prison, KTTV reported.

In 1958, Lawson headed to Vanderbilt University’s divinity school in Nashville, Tennessee, where he was one of the few Blacks on campus, The Washington Post reported.

He began conducting workshops on nonviolent protests for King’s newly formed Southern Christian Leadership Conference, which would become a central organization in the civil rights movement, according to the newspaper.

King named Lawson the SCLC’s director of nonviolent education in 1962, the Post reported. His strict rule on peaceful protest would be the bedrock of the group’s philosophy.

“I told them we have the instruments in our hearts, in our hands, in our minds for change,” Lawson later told a reporter. “The sins of a nation can be changed.”

Lawson’s philosophy led Nashville to become the first major city in the South to desegregate its downtown area, the AP reported. Hundreds of students staged lunch counter sit-ins and boycotts on May 10, 1960.

“It was the first major successful campaign to pull the signs down,” and it was a blueprint for sit-ins that would occur across the South, Lawson said.

Lawson was among the first Freedom Riders arrested in Jackson, Mississippi, in 1961, as activists attempted to integrate interstate bus and train travel, according to the Post. During the “Bloody Sunday” clash of March 1965, in Selma, Alabama, Lawson was among the protesters beaten by authorities at the Edmund Pettus Bridge during a march for voting rights, the newspaper reported.

Lawson worked with King, Diane Nash, John Lewis and C.T. Vivian to promote nonviolent activism during the 1960s, The Tennessean reported.

He was working on the sanitation strike in Memphis in 1968 and called King to participate. Lawson was then one of the leaders of the silent march to honor King in Memphis after he was assassinated on April 4, 1968, according to the newspaper.

“The world has lost an irreplaceably powerful leader in the fight for social justice,” Nashville Metro Council member Joy Styles said, according to The Tennessean. “We owe Rev. Lawson a debt of gratitude for how he led change for the world that we live in.”

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