Honoring the Legacy of Civil Rights Giant Reverend James M. Lawson, Jr.

Rev. Lawson accepts the 2017 William O. Douglas Award from Public Counsel.

Last week, we lost a pillar of the Civil Rights Movement. Reverend James M. Lawson, Jr., a contemporary of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and one of the Civil Rights Movement’s leading activists, theoreticians, and tacticians, passed away at the age of 95. He was a dear friend to Public Counsel, and we honored him in 2017 with the William O. Douglas Award (watch his acceptance speech here).

Rev. Lawson’s influence on the Civil Rights Movement was profound. In college, he studied the teachings of Gandhi, and in his 20s, he refused to report for the Korean War draft and served 14 months in prison. After his release, he traveled to India as a Methodist missionary and followed in the footsteps of Gandhi to further his study of nonviolence.

When he returned to the U.S., Rev. Lawson studied at Oberlin’s Graduate School of Theology. In Febrero 1957, he met Dr. King. and shared his plan to eventually move south. Dr. King said, “Come now, we need you now.” Shortly after, Rev. Lawson left school and moved to Nashville to join the emerging Civil Rights Movement.

Watch our 2017 tribute video to Rev. Lawson.

In Nashville, Rev. Lawson worked with Dr. King to train students and volunteers in nonviolent direct action. He organized the Nashville Campaign, which became the model for movement organizing, including boycotts, pickets, and sit-ins that took place not only at lunch counters but also in restaurants and businesses throughout the South. In addition, he helped coordinate the 1961 Freedom Rides and the 1966 Meredith Marzo and played a major role in the 1968 Sanitation Workers’ Strike in Memphis.

In 1974, Rev. Lawson moved to Los Angeles where he served as pastor at Holman United Methodist Church for 25 years. He continued advocating for workers’ rights, believing in the dignity of all work. Up until recently, he taught his Nonviolence Workshop monthly, passing on his invaluable knowledge to new generations of activists.

Rev. Lawson met with Public Counsel staff in 2022 for a Black History Month Event.

In Febrero 2022, Public Counsel had the honor of hosting Rev. Lawson for a virtual conversation with over 70 members of our staff. He shared insights on how the principles of nonviolence can apply to our work as legal advocates, and the ways we must confront racism and all forms of hate today. In recognition of Black History Month, he reminded us that Black history is “an important vehicle for all Americans to get rid of ideologies that diminish human life and structures that cause injustice.”

In this moment of mourning, we celebrate Rev. Lawson’s extraordinary life and the significant impact he had on the Civil Rights Movement, the City of Los Angeles, and the broader social justice community. On the eve of Dr. King’s assassination, he called Rev. Lawson “the leading theorist and strategist of nonviolence in the world.” Rev. Lawson’steachings and commitment to nonviolence and human rights continue to inspire and guide us in our pursuit of an equitable society where all people thrive, with systems and laws delivering the promise of justice to all.

Thank you, Reverend Lawson. You will be deeply missed, but your legacy will endure through the countless lives you have touched and the movements you have shaped.

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