Remembering Rev. James Lawson for his commitment to nonviolence

June 11, 2024

JustLeadershipUSA remembers and honors the legacy of Rev. James Lawson (1928-2024), civil rights pioneer and close friend and colleague of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

“The Rev. James M. Lawson, a United Methodist minister who became a principal tactician of nonviolent protest during the civil rights movement, leading sit-ins, marches and Freedom Rides that withstood attacks by mobs and police throughout the 1960s, died June 9. He was 95. …

“As a young Methodist missionary, Rev. Lawson traveled to India, where he studied the principles of civil disobedience practiced by the anti-colonialist leader Mohandas K. Gandhi in his campaign against repressive British rule.

“He also spent 13 months in prison after refusing to register for the draft during the Korean War and was a graduate student at Ohio’s Oberlin College in 1957 when the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., the Atlanta minister and civil rights activist, came to campus to speak.

The sins of a nation can be changed.

“King shared a zeal for Gandhi’s teachings and implored Rev. Lawson to put his beliefs into practice in the segregated American South. …

“The next year, Rev. Lawson headed to Vanderbilt University’s divinity school in Nashville, where he was one of the few Blacks on campus. He began conducting workshops on nonviolent protests for King’s newly formed Southern Christian Leadership Conference, which was to become a central organization in the civil rights movement. …

“King appointed Rev. Lawson the SCLC’s director of nonviolent education in 1962, and his strict adherence to peaceful protest formed 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,’ he later recalled to a reporter. ‘The sins of a nation can be changed.’

“Civil rights chroniclers credit Rev. Lawson with playing a leading role in the opening in 1960 of restaurants, movie theaters, city buses, public restrooms and municipal swimming pools in Nashville, one of the first major Southern cities to desegregate public accommodations. …

“Rev. Lawson was among the first Freedom Riders arrested in Jackson, Miss., in 1961, as the activists sought to integrate interstate bus and train travel. During the ‘Bloody Sunday’ clash of March 1965, he was among the protesters beaten by authorities at the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Ala., during a march for voting rights. …

“In 1968, Rev. Lawson was heading a church in Memphis when the city’s sanitation workers — after years of preparation and organizing — went on strike for better pay and working conditions. He persuaded King to help lead the protests, and days later, on the evening of April 4, King was assassinated outside his room at the city’s Lorraine Motel. (Rev. Lawson was at home having dinner with his family when he got word.)

“Years later, Rev. Lawson visited King’s convicted assassin, James Earl Ray, in prison, ministering to him and publicly supporting one of various theories shared among civil rights leaders that Ray was only peripherally involved in the murder and had been framed as the killer.

“Of his relationship with Ray, who died in 1998, he told an interviewer: ‘I did not see it as something apart from the love of God or the love of Jesus.’”

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(Photo: Laura Garcia)

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