Civil Rights Icon Reverend James Lawson Jr. Passes at Age 95

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In the early hours of a Los Angeles morning, the Reverend James Lawson Jr., a luminary and tireless proponent of nonviolent protest, drew his last breath. At 95, he bid farewell to the world led by an enduring spirit of peaceful resistance, his family confirmed on Monday. Falling prey to a brief illness, Lawson departed from a city that had cradled his many roles, from being a pastor to a labor movement organizer, and a university professor.

Lawson held great significance in the life of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., in his capacity as a trusted confidant. The voice of the Civil Rights Movement reverberated with endearment, dubbing Lawson as “the leading theorist and strategist of nonviolence in the world”.

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The two lives intertwined in 1957 when Lawson, brimming with insights and principles of Mohandas K. Gandhi’s freedom movement from his three-year sojourn in India, met King. While King was to visit India two years hence, his understanding of Gandhi was, at that point, bound to the literary realm.

Their shared admiration for the Indian leader’s philosophies instantly struck a chord, with King and Lawson, both 28, drawn together like magnets. King gently nudged Lawson to apply the Gandhian way in the fight against racial inequality simmering in the American South.

Supplementing their vigor with concrete action, Lawson began conducting workshops in the dimly lit basements of various Nashville, Tennessee churches. Here, he began tailoring activists such as John Lewis, Diane Nash, Bernard Lafayette, Marion Barry, the Freedom Riders, and countless others to hold their own against ferocious reactions to their fight against racial policing.

Lawson’s teachings bore fruit as Nashville emerged as the first major Southern city to desegregate downtown on May 10, 1960. This pioneering move followed peaceful protests executed by hundreds of organized students, through lunch-counter sit-ins and boycotts of businesses perpetuating discrimination.

Lawson wove the fabric of Gandhian philosophy into the biblical tapestry familiar to his trainees. His contribution was unique as he demonstrated the inherent power of peaceful rebellion against the inhumane, shedding light on their potential to shake the foundations of the racist power structures in America.

In a conversation with the Associated Press, Lawson recounted Gandhi’s message about individual empowerment to reject racism. According to him, Gandhi asserted that humans possess the power to resist the racism within them and their surroundings, the power to make choices, the power to stand up to harm. Lawson saw echoes of Jesus in this very philosophy.

In 1968, it was Lawson who set in motion the sanitation workers strike that inevitably brought King to Memphis. Following King’s assassination, Lawson experienced a chilling moment of paralysis, a poignant sadness that lingered. “I thought I would not live beyond 40, myself,” he said, reflecting on the looming shadow of death.

Even in the face of adversity and loss, Lawson upheld his mission of advocating for nonviolent direct action. Even after marking 50 years since King’s untimely passing, Lawson expressed his frustration, “The task is unfinished.”

Diane Nash, a stalwart in the Civil Rights Movement, recollected the transformative influence of Lawson’s Nashville workshops on her as a 21-year-old college student. “His passing constitutes a very great loss,” said Nash. She bestowed upon Lawson the honor of being the most instrumental figure in promoting nonviolence in the black civil rights movement in America.

Originally from Massillon, Ohio, James Morris Lawson Jr., born on September 22, 1928, was the son and grandson of ministers. Lawson first realized his calling to nonviolence while on the playground at elementary school. Responding to a racial slur by a fellow student, Lawson’s retaliation resulted in his mother questioning the efficacy of his act. That sole question, coupled with Lawson’s consequent prison sentence for his refusal to serve in the Korean War, sowed the seeds of pacifism in him.

The Fellowship of Reconciliation, a pacifist group, organized Lawson’s enlightenment trip to India, where he met associates of the now deceased Gandhi. Their recounting of “satyagraha,” Gandhi’s principle of Truth, together with Lawson’s own Christian ideals, demonstrated the power of peaceful resistance against an unjust law.

During his time as a divinity student at Oberlin College in Ohio, King’s speech on campus on the Montgomery bus boycott left a deep impression on Lawson. Consequently, Lawson relocated to Vanderbilt University to study theology and led several younger activists in practicing tolerance during simulated protests.

This non-violent approach was put to the test and validated in Nashville. On May 10, 1960, city businesses agreed to remove discriminatory “No Colored” signs. Lawson described this as a monumental triumph and an inspiration for the North to follow suit.

Lawson spearheaded the formation of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee to coordinate the efforts of tens of thousands of students challenging Jim Crow laws across the South. Larson’s ardent involvement caused uproar amongst the segregationists leading to his expulsion from Vanderbilt. However, he bore no grudge against the institution he eventually joined as a distinguished visiting professor in 2006.

Lawson’s later years were marked by his teaching career in several universities in Los Angeles, including California State University, Northridge, and the University of California. He continued to lead the Holman United Methodist Church in the city, stoking the fires of peaceful rebellion.

Los Angeles Mayor Karen Bass lauded Lawson’s contributions to the civil and labor movement in Southern California. As news of his passing spread, tributes poured in from national leaders. Civil rights leader Rev. Al Sharpton praised Lawson as “the ultimate preacher, prophet, and activist.”

One of the last vital acts of Lawson’s inspiring journey was his eulogy for the late Rep. John Lewis in 2020. He reminisced about Lewis, whom he had trained in Nashville, and his ability to transform lonely marches into a mighty movement for major civil rights legislation.

As a final act of homage, Lawson implored those mourning Lewis to recommit themselves to their mission, to continue working towards dismantling systemic oppression in their midst.

Though Reverend James Lawson Jr. is no longer among us, his ideals continue to resonate, leaving behind a legacy that stands tall against racial prejudice, violence, and hatred.