IN MEMORIAM: Rev. James Lawson, Jr.: A Legendary Civil Rights Leader Who Trained John Lewis in Non-Violence, Dies at 95

By Lauren Victoria Burke, NNPA Newswire Contributor

One of the last living legends of the American Civil Rights Movement that fought against violence and injustice on behalf of Black Americans, Rev. James Lawson, Jr., has died in Los Angeles. The reported cause was cardiac arrest.

Lawson was a legendary associate of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and a teacher, strategist and associate alongside all the major figures of the American Civil Rights Movement from King to Ralph Abernathy and James L. Farmer Jr. to John Lewis, Roy Wilkins and Bayard Rustin. Lawson would become an indispensable architect in the fight for justice for Black citizens in America.

Lawson’s path as a civil rights activist was notably shaped during his time as a missionary in India from 1953 to 1956. While in India, Lawson studied Mahatma Gandhi’s principles of nonviolence, which deeply resonated with his Christian beliefs. After returning to the U.S. Lawson enrolled at the Oberlin School of Theology in Ohio and met Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in 1957.

The rising community activist recognized Lawson’s potential and convinced him to move to the South to train activists in nonviolent activism. Before Oberlin, Lawson attended Baldwin Wallace College in Berea, Ohio, where he became active in the Fellowship of Reconciliation, an organization dedicated to nonviolent action.

“The world won’t get no better if we just let it be.” Rev. James Lawson Jr. embodied these lyrics. He was a courageous nonviolent strategist who taught many to meet injustice with what my father called “soul force.” My condolences to his family. May his legacy live on,” wrote Bernice King, the daughter of the legendary civil rights leader.

“The King Center mourns Rev. James Lawson Jr., a leading nonviolent strategist whose insight was deeply valued by Dr. King. Rev. Lawson, who died at 95, profoundly impacted the Civil Rights Movement, training leaders like John Lewis and Diane Nash. Condolences to his family,” reads a note from the King Center read after news of Rev. Lawson’s death.

Lawson moved to Nashville, Tennessee, and enrolled at Vanderbilt University’s Divinity School. In Nashville, Lawson played a key role in organizing and leading workshops on nonviolent tactics. His efforts culminated in the Nashville sit-ins of 1960 and Lawson successfully desegregated lunch counters in the city. The sit-in strategy became a crucial part of the broader Civil Rights Movement in the years to come as the non-violent protest won the attention of the nation and the world as it shined a light on the absurdity of segregation laws in the South.

Lawson became a key figure in the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and continued to work closely with Dr. King, participating in several major campaigns during the Civil Rights Movement. They included the Freedom Rides and the March on Washington in 1963. Lawson’s commitment to nonviolence remained steadfast even in the frequent and brutal face of violence and arrest by law enforcement in the South that shared close ties with the Ku Klux Klan.

“The Southern Poverty Law Center joins the world in mourning the loss of the Rev. James Lawson Jr., a civil rights activist who led sit-ins, marches and Freedom Rides.

Today we remember the Rev. James Lawson Jr. as we continue pushing for equality and justice. Rest in power. #TheMarchContinues,” a message on social media from the Southern Poverty Law Center read in tribute to Lawson.

“The world has lost a powerful life force and mentor to so many of us. Expelled, arrested, and repeatedly brutalized, Rev. James Lawson never stopped waging revolutionary nonviolence against racism, sexism, militarism, and plantation capitalism. Rise in power, ancestor,” wrote Tennessee legislator Rep. Justin Jones in honor of Lawson.

“We just lost a moral giant and spiritual genius- Rev. James Lawson, one of the greatest freedom fighters of our time! His courage and compassion was incredible! His prophetic witness shall forever burn in my heart!” wrote Princeton Professor Cornel West.

Reverend Lawson was born on September 22, 1928, in Uniontown, Pennsylvania. He grew up in Massillon, Ohio, where his father was a coal miner and Methodist minister who instilled in him a strong sense of faith and justice.

After King was killed in 1968, Lawson continued his work as social justice advocate. He served as pastor of the Holman United Methodist Church in Los Angeles from 1974 to 1999, where he focused on issues such as worker and immigrant rights. Lawson continued to be an influential voice, advocating for nonviolent resistance and human rights.

Lauren Victoria Burke is an independent investigative journalist and the publisher of Black Virginia News. She is a political analyst who appears regularly on #RolandMartinUnfiltered and speaks on Crisis Comms on YouTube @LaurenVictoriaBurke. She can be contacted at [email protected] and on twitter at @LVBurke