Rev. Dr. James M. Lawson Leaves Us Each with a Legacy of Courage, Commitment and Wisdom – No Matter What!

A Memphis Centenarian since June of 1962, Rev. Dr. James M. Lawson quickly began nonviolent workshops as the new pastor in the deeply segregated South. Some may have thought he was following in the footsteps of the courageous Rev. H. B. Gibson who led the Memphis NAACP and pastored Centenary. Yet, Dr. Lawson already had a civil rights activist history, having studied the nonviolent movement of Mahatma Gandhi in India while a missionary there for three years. 

Dr. Lawson trained civil rights activists in Nashville and was integrally involved in the demonstrations himself – not just the trainings. He was expelled from Vanderbilt University after being arrested for protests, though decades later was honored when Vanderbilt established the James Lawson Institute for the Research and Study of Nonviolent Movements.

Dr. Lawson counseled Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in his nonviolent journey that helped upend at least some of the all-intrusive daily oppressive experiences of many Black people living in the South. Dr. Lawson called mightily on that relationship when he (along with a few others) asked Dr. King to take a detour from strategizing for the National Poor Peoples Campaign to bring his support to the 1968 Memphis Sanitation Workers Strike. As Memphis city government had just moved to a Mayor-Council form of government, the workers were seeking basic respect (reflected in their “I Am A Man” signs), a slight increase in pay for their grueling work, as well as equitable working conditions and union representation.

Folks were used to meeting at Centenary for civil rights. James Meredith’s solitary March Against Fear on June 6, 1966 was halted by a sniper’s bullet striking Meredith to the ground. Leaders met at Centenary and soon more than 600 people gathered there. Twenty-one marchers led by Dr. King–and tirelessly encouraged by Rev. Lawson–staunchly continued the nonviolent march down Highway 51 South, despite first being shoved by Mississippi State Troopers.

As some elders shared, sometimes the sanctuary on Sunday dwindled to 30 brave Centenarians. Some may have thought the Pastor had gone too far – or feared the all too real threats and attacks hurled at the Pastor and church members, even at their workplaces. Dr. Lawson was not deterred. Undaunted, he continued with his steadfast advocacy for equity and justice with the few who were willing, using the nonviolent methods he learned from Gandhi’s practices. 

He took communion and compassion to the members at their homes, so he could maintain pastoral relationships with the people who could not (or would not) attend in person. He knew the organizing, the actions, and public messages were needed. He hoped, prayed, trained, taught and brought the power of people and God to lift the numbers of supporters from a few to many, even to far distant souls who resonated with the vision and promise of Black people living and thriving in peace with dignity, doing more than merely surviving under daily discrimination. 

Dr. Lawson had faced the attacks before. 

In fact, he had helped train John Lewis, Diane Nash, James Bevel, Marion Barry, Bernard Lafayette, and countless others in nonviolent theory and practice. They in turn created and led sit-ins, Freedom Rides, children’s marches and voting rights campaigns that led to the 1964 Civil Rights Act and 1965 Voting Rights Act.

To withstand the attacks of white supremacists (segregationists to the core), they rehearsed scenarios, practiced patience and valor, and continued to be nonviolent even when verbal or physical attacks were launched against them. The theory and practice of nonviolence required intense discipline, great strength, and immersion in the lived experience of “turning the other cheek” to arouse the conscience of a nation to recognize humanity in us all.

Dr. Lawson was in Memphis from 1961 to 1974 when he became Pastor of Holman United Methodist Church in Los Angeles until 1999, where he later served as pastor emeritus. He continued nonviolent trainings into his 90’s, and his advocacy with workers and others created substantial changes in lives. His work with the Los Angeles hotel workers union achieved higher wages and improved working conditions by mobilizing sit-ins, hunger strikes, and civil disobedience protests.

Dr. Lawson lived a rich life dedicated to uplifting Black liberation, and he leaves each of us with his legacy of courage, commitment and wisdom – no matter what!

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