James Lawson Jr passed away this past Sunday in Los Angeles. Source: Wikipedia Commons

Reverend James Lawson Jr.,  Pioneering Civil Rights Leader, Dies at 95

The Rev. James Lawson Jr., who trained activists like John Lewis in nonviolent protest and was a close confidant of Martin Luther King Jr., passed away Sunday after a lifetime dedicated to peaceful resistance against racism.

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The Reverend James Lawson Jr., an iconic figure in the Civil Rights Movement and a close confidant of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., passed away on Sunday in Los Angeles at 95. Lawson’s family confirmed his death, stating that he succumbed to a brief illness on June 9th. 

Lawson was instrumental in training countless activists, including John Lewis and Diane Nash, in the philosophies and strategies of peaceful protest. His teaching would become the basis for many nonviolent actions in the late 1960s, demonstrating the quiet service he did for his country. 

Born in 1928 in Massillon, Ohio, Lawson’s commitment to nonviolence took root at an early age. He once gave an anecdote of his childhood, in which after hitting another young boy, his mother asked “What good did that do, Jimmy?” Lawson said that simple question changed his life, pushing him toward a pacifist activism path. 

Raised in a segregated United States, civil rights were at the forefront of Lawson’s daily experience by the time he reached adulthood. He attended Baldwin Wallace College in Barea, Ohio, but was sent to prison due to refusing to serve in the Vietnam War. After a year in prison, he returned to college and finished his degree in sociology. He then went on a Methodist missionary trip to Nagpur, India, where he learned the teachings of Mahatma Gandhi’s forms of nonviolent resistance.

When he returned to the United States, he began his graduate studies in theology at Oberlin College, where a professor was introduced to Martin Luther King Jr. in 1957. The two became close, bonding over their shared belief of peaceful resistance to racism in the United States. King urged him to move to the South because he believed his teaching on civil rights could go far in the budding civil rights movement. Dr. King once called Lawson, “the leading theorist and strategist of nonviolence in the world.”

Dr. King was correct. Lawson’s expertise in Gandhian principles proved invaluable, as he translated these concepts into actionable strategies for the burgeoning Civil Rights Movement. He moved to Nashville Tennessee, and attended Vanderbilt University, where he collaborated with other students to spread Gandhi’s message. 

Lawson and his pupils organized protests for civil rights that became synonymous with the 60s era, including the March on Washington, the Freedom Rides, and the 1965 Selma Voting Rights Movement. In 1961, after being arrested with a group of Freedom Riders, Lawson met with Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy to discuss their need for equity. By September, President John F. Kennedy ordered that passengers be able to sit anywhere on the bus. Lawson’s dedication to peaceful protest significantly accelerated the systematic shifts of the civil rights movement.

Lawson’s influence extended far beyond his role in the Nashville campaign. In 1968, he organized the sanitation workers’ strike that brought Dr. King to Memphis, where an assassin tragically killed the civil rights leader. Regarding the assassination, Lawson once said “I thought I would not live beyond 40, myself. The imminence of death was a part of the discipline we lived with, but no one faced it as much as King.”

Even in the aftermath of King’s death, Lawson remained steadfast in his mission, preaching the power of nonviolent direct action and inspiring generations of activists. After leaving the South, Lawson became a pastor in Los Angeles in 1974. He was active in the labor movement, gay rights movements, and movements for reproductive rights. He remained active even after he retired, speaking to the press about the future of civil rights in the United States, and speaking at local events to educate the next generation of activists.

Now that he has passed, the nation has lost an icon of civil rights, his legacy serves as a testament to the transformative power of organizing, peaceful protests, and conversation in the face of injustice. 

Written by Mia Boykin 

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