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South Los Angeles pastor and civil rights icon, Rev. James Lawson Jr., dies at 95

Remembering civil rights icon Reverend James Lawson
Remembering civil rights icon Reverend James Lawson 03:39

Longtime South Los Angeles pastor and community leader, the Rev. James Lawson Jr., died Monday at age 95. Lawson was instrumental in the 1960s civil rights movement and worked closely with Martin Luther King Jr. promoting unity and nonviolence.

In January, South Los Angeles honored the pastor of Holman United Methodist Church with a stretch of Adams Boulevard dedicated as the "Rev James Lawson Mile."

Los Angeles City Councilwoman Heather Hutt, who led the street dedication, said earlier "Rev. James Lawson was a relentless advocate who, during the Civil Rights Movement, led Freedom Rides, advocated for voting rights, and truly built a legacy that left an indelible mark on social justice movements around the world."

Lawson served as pastor at Holman United Methodist Church from 1974 to his retirement in 1999.

Born James Morris Lawson Jr. Sept. 22, 1928, in Uniontown, Pennsylvania, the son and grandson of Methodist ministers, Lawson was raised in Massillon, Ohio. 

While a college student in Ohio, Lawson was drafted by the U.S. Army, but refused to serve due to his belief in nonviolence and was sentenced to two years in prison. 

Released after 13 months, Lawson returned to college to finish his education, then traveled to Nagpur, India as a Methodist missionary to study the nonviolence resistance tactics developed by Mahatma Gandhi.

He returned to the United States in 1956, entering the Graduate School of Theology at Oberlin College in Ohio. 

In 1957, he moved to Nashville, Tennessee where he attended Vanderbilt University and began teaching nonviolent protest techniques.

In February 1960, following lunch counter sit-ins initiated by students at a Woolworth's store in Greensboro, North Carolina, Lawson and several local activists launched a similar protest in Nashville's downtown stores. More than 150 students were arrested before city leaders agreed to desegregate some lunch counters. 

Lawson was expelled from Vanderbilt in March 1960 because of his involvement with Nashville's desegregation movement. Lawson eventually reconciled with Vanderbilt and returned to teach as a distinguished university

Vanderbilt established an institute for the research and study of nonviolent movements bearing his name in 2021.

Lawson participated in the 1961 Freedom Rides which challenged segregation on interstate buses and bus terminals.

Lawson became pastor of Centenary Methodist Church in Memphis, Tennessee in 1962. In 1968, when Black sanitation workers in Memphis began a strike for higher wages and union recognition after two of their co-workers were accidentally crushed to death, Lawson served as chairman of their strike committee.

Lawson and King led a march in support of the strikers on March 28, 1968, which erupted in violence and was immediately called off.

In what would be his final speech on April 3, 1968, one day before his assassination, King spoke of Lawson as one of the "noble men" who had influenced the Black freedom struggle.

"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," King said. 

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