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James Lawson (activist)

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James Lawson
Lawson in 2005
James Morris Lawson Jr.

(1928-09-22)September 22, 1928
DiedJune 9, 2024(2024-06-09) (aged 95)
Los Angeles, California, U.S.
Occupation(s)Activist, professor, minister
Known forNashville sit-ins

James Morris Lawson Jr. (September 22, 1928 – June 9, 2024) was an American activist and university professor. He was a leading theoretician and tactician of nonviolence within the Civil Rights Movement.[1] During the 1960s, he served as a mentor to the Nashville Student Movement and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee.[2][3] He was expelled from Vanderbilt University for his civil rights activism in 1960, and later served as a pastor in Los Angeles for 25 years.

Early life and education


Lawson was born to Philane May Cover and James Morris Lawson Sr. on September 22, 1928, in Uniontown, Pennsylvania.[4] He was the sixth out of nine children.[5] He grew up in Massillon, Ohio. Both Lawson's father and grandfather were Methodist ministers. Lawson received his ministry license in 1947 during his senior year of high school.[6]

While a freshman at Baldwin Wallace College in Berea, Ohio, he studied sociology. Because of his refusal to serve in the US military when drafted, he was convicted of draft evasion and sentenced to two years in prison. He served 13 months of his sentence and returned to college, finishing his degree.[7] He joined the Fellowship of Reconciliation (FOR), an organization led by A. J. Muste, and the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), an organization affiliated with FOR. Both FOR and CORE advocated nonviolent resistance to racism.[7]

He went as a Methodist missionary to Nagpur, India, where he studied satyagraha, a form of nonviolence resistance developed by Mohandas Gandhi and his followers.[8] He returned to the United States in 1956, entering the Graduate School of Theology at Oberlin College in Ohio. One of his Oberlin professors introduced him to Martin Luther King Jr. who had also embraced Gandhi's principles of nonviolent resistance.[9] In 1957, King urged Lawson to move to the south telling him, "Come now. We don't have anyone like you down there." He moved to Nashville, where he attended Vanderbilt University and began teaching nonviolent protest techniques.[10]

Lawson studied at Oberlin College from 1956 to 1957 and after being there for a year, he married Dorothy Wood and had three sons.[11] He attended Vanderbilt from 1958 to 1960. Lawson was expelled from Vanderbilt in March 1960 for civil rights arrests, but received his S.T.B. from Boston University that same year.[10] Lawson received a post as pastor of the Scott Church in Shelbyville, Tennessee.[11]

Leadership during the Civil Rights Movement

External videos
video icon "Interview with James M. Lawson, Jr." conducted in 1985 for the Eyes on the Prize documentary in which he discusses the Nashville sit-ins.

Lawson moved to Nashville, Tennessee, and enrolled at the Divinity School of Vanderbilt University, where he served as the southern director for CORE and began conducting nonviolence training workshops for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in a church basement in 1958. While in Nashville, he met and mentored a number of young students at Vanderbilt, Fisk University, and other area schools in the tactics of nonviolent direct action.[12] In Nashville, he trained many of the future leaders of the Civil Rights Movement, among them Diane Nash, James Bevel, Bernard Lafayette, Marion Barry, and John Lewis. In 1959 and 1960, they and other Lawson-trained activists launched the Nashville sit-ins to challenge segregation in downtown stores.[13] In February 1960, following the lunch sit-ins by students at the Woolworth's stores in Greensboro, North Carolina, Lawson and several others were arrested. Their actions led to desegregation of some lunch counters.[7]

Lawson was expelled from Vanderbilt due to his participation in these activities.[14] James Geddes Stahlman, the publisher of the Nashville Banner who served on the university's board of trust, published misleading stories that led to his expulsion.[14] Another trustee, John Sloan, the president of Cain-Sloan, supported Stahlman's suggestion to expel him.[15] Under the intense pressure, Chancellor Harvie Branscomb enforced the decision. Branscomb later re-examined that action, regretting he did not consider referring the matter to a committee to delay action for three months until Lawson's graduation.[16] During the 2006 graduation ceremony, Vanderbilt apologized for its treatment of Lawson.[17] Lawson returned to teach at Vanderbilt as a Distinguished Professor from 2006 to 2009. He donated his papers in 2013.[18]

Lawson's students played a leading role in the Open Theater Movement, the Freedom Rides, the March on Washington, Freedom Summer, the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, the Children's Crusade in Birmingham, the 1965 Selma Voting Rights Movement, the Chicago Freedom Movement, and the Anti-Vietnam War Movement over the next few years. In 1962, Lawson brought King and Bevel together for a meeting that resulted in the two agreeing to work together as equals.[19] Bevel was then named SCLC's Director of Direct Action and Director of Nonviolent Education.

In 1961, Lawson helped develop strategy for the Freedom Riders. Lawson encouraged the students to plan a second wave of Freedom Rides from Alabama to continue the work and Lawson joined the group. They arrived in Jackson safe, but when they filed into a "whites only" waiting room they were arrested. Lawson was among the first who was arrested during the Jackson Freedom Ride arrests.[20] The NAACP offered to pay for bail, but Lawson and others refused bail and waited for trial. The judge found all 27 guilty and they remained in jail. Lawson and the Freedom Riders met with Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy, and, in September 1961, President John F. Kennedy ordered that passengers be able to sit anywhere.[21]

Lawson became pastor of Centenary Methodist Church in Memphis, Tennessee in 1962. In 1968, when black sanitation workers began the Memphis sanitation strike for higher wages and union recognition after two of their co-workers were accidentally crushed to death, Reverend Lawson served as chairman of their strike committee. He co-founded the Committee on the Move to Equality (COME). Lawson extended an invitation to Dr. King to speak in Memphis.[7] King delivered his famous "Mountaintop" speech, and was killed in Memphis in April 1968.[7]

Later career

Lawson in 2010 talking with an audience member following a panel discussion on the Nashville sit-ins

Lawson moved to Los Angeles in 1974, where he was pastor of Holman United Methodist Church. He retired in 1999, but continued his civil rights work. While in Los Angeles, he was active in the labor movement, the American Civil Liberties Union, and movements for reproductive choice and gay rights. He served as chairman of the Laity United for Economic Justice.[7] During this time, Lawson hosted Lawson Live, a weekly call-in radio show, where he discussed human- and social-rights issues.[6] He continued to train activists in nonviolence and supports immigrants' rights in the United States, the rights of Palestinians, and workers' rights to a living wage.

Lawson took part in a well-publicized three-day Freedom Ride commemorative program sponsored by Vanderbilt University's Office of Active Citizenship and Service in January 2007. The program included an educational bus tour to Montgomery and Birmingham, Alabama. Participants also included fellow Civil Rights activists Jim Zwerg, Diane Nash, Bernard Lafayette, C. T. Vivian and John Seigenthaler; journalists and approximately 180 students, faculty and administrators from Vanderbilt, Fisk, Tennessee State University and American Baptist College.[22]

He spearheaded California State University Northridge's (CSUN) Civil Discourse and Social Change initiative as a visiting faculty member for the academic year of 2010/11, where he continued to serve as a visiting scholar teaching a semester-long course on nonviolence until his death in 2024.[23][24] The initiative built on CSUN's history of activism and diversity, while focusing on the current budget and policy battles surrounding education. Lawson helped bring perspective, knowledge, and strategic thinking to the campus.[25]

The International Center on Nonviolent Conflict held an eight-day program on civil resistance facilitated by Lawson in Nashville in 2013 and 2014.[26] A class taught by Lawson, Kent Wong, Kelly Lytle Hernandez, and Ana Luz Gonzalez inspired UCLA students to publish Nonviolence and Social Movements, a book that focuses on the principles of nonviolence and social change that Lawson taught.[27]



Lawson died at a hospital in Los Angeles, on June 9, 2024, at the age of 95.[28][29] This was the night before the 60th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act of 1964's filibuster breaking.



In 2004, he received the Community of Christ International Peace Award.[30] On December 10, 2021, UCLA announced the renaming of the UCLA Labor Center building next to MacArthur Park as the UCLA James M. Lawson, Jr. Labor Center, in honor of his longstanding commitment to the advancement of worker rights and the wellbeing of laborers.[31]

On April 24, 2019, as a result of nomination by council member Nick Fish, the Portland Oregon mayor and city council declared that day the Reverend James Lawson Jr. Day in a ceremony at City Hall.[32] That night Rev. Lawson delivered the keynote address to the public at Portland State University, beginning five days of the 6th James Lawson Institute, organized by peace scholar and former SNCC Communications Co-Director (with Julian Bond) Mary E. King.

On July 28, 2023, James Lawson High School opened in Nashville, Tennessee.[33][34] A one-mile stretch (1.6 km) of Adams Boulevard near Holman United Methodist Church was renamed in his honor in 2024.[35]

In media


Lawson was portrayed in the 2013 motion picture The Butler by actor Jesse Williams. The film chronicles Lawson's training sessions during the civil rights protests of the 1950s and 1960s.[36] Lawson was the subject of the film Love and Solidarity: Rev. James Lawson and Nonviolence in the Search for Workers Rights by Michael K. Honey. The film is an introduction to Lawson's contributions to labor rights struggles and the civil rights movement.[37]

See also



  1. ^ "Freedom Riders: James Lawson". PBS. Archived from the original on May 20, 2014. Retrieved March 5, 2014.
  2. ^ Hughes, Richard A. (2009). Pro-justice Ethics: From Lament to Nonviolence. New York: Peter Lang. p. 226. ISBN 978-1433105258.
  3. ^ Catsam, Derek Charles (2009). Freedom's Main Line: The Journey of Reconciliation and the Freedom Rides. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky. ISBN 978-0813125114.
  4. ^ "James M. Larson, Jr." in Notable Black American Men Book II, Thomson Gale, Reproduced in Biography Resource Center (Fee). Farmington Hills, Michigan: Gale. 2008 [2006]. K1622000673. Archived from the original on June 11, 2024. Retrieved April 18, 2008.
  5. ^ Dreier, Peter (August 15, 2012). "A Totally Moral Man: The Life of Nonviolent Organizer Rev. James Lawson". Thrthout. Archived from the original on June 11, 2024. Retrieved February 22, 2018.
  6. ^ a b "This Far by Faith . James Lawson". PBS. Archived from the original on March 27, 2019. Retrieved March 28, 2017.
  7. ^ a b c d e f Dowdy, Gerald Wayne. "James Lawson". Encyclopedia of African American History. 3: 856–858. Archived from the original on March 12, 2020. Retrieved February 27, 2018.
  8. ^ Houck, Davis W.; Dixon, David E. (2006). Rhetoric, religion and the civil rights movement, 1954–1965. Baylor University Press. pp. 356–363. ISBN 9781932792546.
  9. ^ Sudarshan Kapur, Raising up a Prophet. The African-American encounter with Gandhi (Boston: Beacon Press 1992), pp. 155–156 (as "Gandhian-Christian", trip to India, meets M. L. King), 161 (links Indian and African-American movements), 162 (as "nonviolent trainer").
  10. ^ a b "Lawson, James M." King Encyclopedia. Stanford University. May 10, 2017. Archived from the original on December 11, 2019. Retrieved December 3, 2019.
  11. ^ a b Dowdy, Gerald Wayne. "James Lawson". Encyclopedia of African American History. 3: 856–858. Archived from the original on March 12, 2020. Retrieved March 8, 2018.
  12. ^ Mogul, Jonathan. Barbara de Boinville (ed.). "A Force More Powerful (English study guide)" (PDF). pp. 4 et seq. Archived from the original (PDF) on May 29, 2008. Retrieved April 19, 2008. Inspired by a trip to India to study Gandhi and by the 1955 bus boycott in Montgomery, Alabama, led by Martin Luther King Jr, Lawson decides to try his own hand at nonviolent struggle against racial segregation.
  13. ^ "THE NASHVILLE SIT-IN STORY" (PDF). Civil Rights Movement Archive. Archived (PDF) from the original on May 25, 2019. Retrieved June 10, 2024.
  14. ^ a b Sumner, David E. (Spring 1997). "The Publisher and the Preacher: Racial Conflict at Vanderbilt University". Tennessee Historical Quarterly. 56 (1): 34–43. JSTOR 42627327.
  15. ^ Houston, Benjamin (2012). The Nashville Way: Racial Etiquette and the Struggle for Social Justice in a Southern City. Athens, Georgia: University of Georgia Press. pp. 106–107. ISBN 9780820343266. OCLC 940632744.
  16. ^ Branscomb, Harvie (1978). Purely Academic: An Autobiography. Nashville, TN: Vanderbilt University. pp. 155–165, at 161.
  17. ^ Theo Emery, Activist Ousted From Vanderbilt Is Back, as a Teacher Archived March 9, 2018, at the Wayback Machine, The New York Times, October 4, 2006
  18. ^ Deer Owens, Ann Marie (February 19, 2013). "James Lawson donates papers to Vanderbilt". Vanderbilt News. Vanderbilt University. Archived from the original on June 23, 2018. Retrieved December 17, 2017.
  19. ^ "Movement Revision Research Summary Regarding James Bevel" by Randy Kryn, October 2005, published by Middlebury College
  20. ^ Valentine, Paul W. (June 10, 2024). "James Lawson, an architect of civil rights nonviolence, dies at 95". Washington Post. Retrieved June 10, 2024.
  21. ^ Dreier, Peter (August 15, 2012). "A Totally Moral Man: The Life of Nonviolent Organizer Rev. James Lawson". Truthout. Archived from the original on March 16, 2018. Retrieved February 22, 2018.
  22. ^ Lewis, Princine (January 30, 2007). "Freedom Ride 2007 inspires participants to create change". Vanderbilt News. Archived from the original on June 26, 2018. Retrieved June 10, 2024.
  23. ^ "Civil Discourse and Social Change". csun.edu. Archived from the original on October 8, 2012. Retrieved January 12, 2014.
  24. ^ Moran-Perez, Gillian (February 26, 2020). "A Lesson from Reverend James M. Lawson Jr". Daily Sundial. Northridge, California. Archived from the original on January 20, 2021. Retrieved January 27, 2021.
  25. ^ "Civil Discourse & Social Change". CSUN Website. October 6, 2017. Archived from the original on October 19, 2019. Retrieved June 10, 2024.
  26. ^ "James Lawson Institute". International Center on Nonviolent Conflict. May 15, 2017. Archived from the original on February 27, 2024. Retrieved June 10, 2024.
  27. ^ "Share this Publication Download PDF Nonviolence and Social Movements: The Teachings of Rev. James M. Lawson Jr". UCLA Institute for Research on Labor & Employment. UCLA. September 23, 2020. Archived from the original on March 3, 2024. Retrieved June 10, 2024.
  28. ^ "Breaking News: Rev. James M. Lawson Jr. Passes Away". Los Angeles Sentinel. June 10, 2024. Archived from the original on June 11, 2024. Retrieved June 10, 2024.
  29. ^ "James Lawson, architect of nonviolent protest of civil rights movement, dies at 95". The Washington Post. June 10, 2024.
  30. ^ "Recipients". Community of Christ International Peace Award. Archived from the original on March 31, 2019. Retrieved June 10, 2024.
  31. ^ "A perfect tribute: UCLA names labor center building in honor of Rev. James Lawson Jr". UCLA. Archived from the original on December 11, 2021. Retrieved December 11, 2021.
  32. ^ "Honoring Dr. James Lawson". The City of Portland, Oregon. April 24, 2019. Archived from the original on December 10, 2023. Retrieved June 10, 2024.
  33. ^ Young, Amelia (August 8, 2023). "James Lawson High School welcomes 1,200 Metro students to new school". News Channel 5 Nashville (WTVF). Archived from the original on January 16, 2024. Retrieved January 16, 2024.
  34. ^ "Our School". James Lawson High School. Archived from the original on January 16, 2024. Retrieved January 16, 2024.
  35. ^ Pulliam, Tim (January 14, 2024). "Los Angeles honors civil-rights icon Rev. James Lawson with street named in his honor". ABC 7. Archived from the original on January 16, 2024. Retrieved January 16, 2024.
  36. ^ "'The Butler' Star Took Real Freedom Rider to Premiere". Yahoo! News. August 22, 2013. Archived from the original on June 11, 2024. Retrieved June 10, 2024.
  37. ^ Lindley, Robin (April 2, 2017). "Why It's Time to Get to Know Black Civil Rights Activist James Lawson: An Interview with Michael K. Honey". History News Network. Archived from the original on July 3, 2017. Retrieved March 3, 2018.
  • "James Lawson Named 2005 Vanderbilt University Distinguished Alumnus." Tennessee Tribune, December 22, 2005.
  • Mielczarek, Natalia. "Vanderbilt Hires Ex-student It Expelled for Civil Rights Activism." Tennessean, January 19, 2006.
  • Summer, David E. "The Publisher and the Preacher: Racial Conflict at Vanderbilt University." Tennessee Historical Quarterly LVI (Spring 1997): 34–43.
  • Wynn, Linda T. "The Dawning of a New Day: The Nashville Sit-Ins, February 13, 1960 – May 10, 1960." Tennessee Historical Quarterly L (Spring 1991): 42–54.

"Interview with James M. Lawson" March 17, 1964" Archived from the digital archive Who Speaks for the Negro? (Accessed January 18, 2021).

Further reading