Rev. James Lawson

James Morris Lawson Jr., born September 22, 1928, is a prominent American activist and university professor. He made significant contributions as a leading theorist and tactician of nonviolence within the Civil Rights Movement. In the 1960s, Lawson played a pivotal role, mentoring the Nashville Student Movement and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. His commitment to the cause led to his expulsion from Vanderbilt University in 1960 due to his civil rights activism. Following this, he took on the role of a pastor in Los Angeles, a position he held for 25 years. Lawson’s early life was marked by influences that shaped his future path. Born in Uniontown, Pennsylvania, to Philane May Cover and James Morris Lawson Sr., he was the sixth child in a family of nine. Raised in Massillon, Ohio, Lawson was deeply influenced by his father and grandfather, who were Methodist ministers. In 1947, during his senior year of high school, he received his ministry license, marking the beginning of his lifelong commitment to social justice. Lawson’s journey through education and activism was both challenging and formative. He initially attended Baldwin Wallace College in Berea, Ohio, studying sociology. However, his life took a turn when he was drafted into the US military. Standing firm in his beliefs, Lawson refused to serve, resulting in his conviction for draft evasion and a two-year prison sentence, of which he served 13 months. After his release, he completed his degree and joined the Fellowship of Reconciliation (FOR) and the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), both of which advocated nonviolent resistance to racism.

Lawson’s international experience in India profoundly influenced his approach to activism. As a Methodist missionary in Nagpur, India, he studied Satyagraha, the nonviolent resistance methodology Mohandas Gandhi and his followers developed. This experience was pivotal, and upon his return to the United States in 1956, he enrolled in the Graduate School of Theology at Oberlin College in Ohio. Here, an Oberlin professor introduced him to Martin Luther King Jr., who encouraged Lawson to move south to apply his unique skills in the heart of the civil rights struggle.

Lawson’s time at Oberlin College, from 1956 to 1957, was also marked by personal milestones. He married Dorothy Wood and started a family, having three sons: John, Morris, and Seth.

He later attended Vanderbilt University from 1958 to 1960, where his civil rights activities led to his expulsion. Despite this setback, he earned his Bachelor’s in Sacred Theology (STB) from Boston University the same year and accepted a post as pastor of the Scott Church in Shelbyville, Tennessee. Lawson’s impact on the Civil Rights Movement intensified in Nashville, Tennessee. After enrolling at the Divinity School of Vanderbilt University, he assumed the role of southern director for CORE and began conducting nonviolence training workshops. His workshops in a church basement in 1958 were instrumental in training many young students from Vanderbilt, Fisk University, and other area schools in nonviolent direct-action tactics. Lawson’s mentorship in Nashville was crucial, shaping the movement’s future leaders, including Diane Nash, James Bevel, Bernard Lafayette, Marion Barry, and John Lewis.

Lawson’s students became central figures in various fundamental movements across the nation. They played leading roles 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. In a significant meeting in 1962, Lawson brought together King and Bevel, leading to a collaboration that would greatly influence the direction of the Civil Rights Movement. Lawson’s role in the Freedom Riders’ strategy in 1961 was a testament to his commitment to nonviolent resistance. He encouraged students to continue the Freedom Rides from Alabama, joining them in their journey. Their efforts led to their arrest in Jackson, Mississippi, for entering a “whites only” waiting room. The group’s decision to refuse bail and wait for trial was a powerful statement of their commitment to the cause. This event caught the attention of national figures, including Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy, and eventually led to President John F. Kennedy’s order to desegregate public transportation. In 1962, Lawson became the pastor of Centenary Methodist Church in Memphis, Tennessee. His leadership was crucial during the 1968 Memphis sanitation strike, where he served as chairman of the strike committee. His efforts in Memphis also led to an invitation to Dr. King to speak, which resulted in King’s famous “Mountaintop” speech, delivered shortly before his assassination in April 1968.

Lawson’s move to Los Angeles in 1974 marked a new chapter in his life. As pastor of Holman United Methodist Church until his retirement in 1999, he continued his activism, focusing on labor, civil liberties, reproductive choice, and gay rights. He also served as chairman of the Laity United for Economic Justice and hosted “Lawson Live,” a weekly radio show discussing human and social rights issues. His ongoing efforts included training activists in nonviolence and advocating for immigrants’ rights, the rights of citizens in fragile and conflict-affected situations, and workers’ rights to a living wage. In recognition of his lifelong dedication, he received the Community of Christ International Peace Award in 2004. Lawson’s legacy continued to grow in the new millennium. In 2007, he participated in a three-day Freedom Ride commemorative program sponsored by Vanderbilt University’s Office of Active Citizenship and Service. This educational bus tour to Montgomery and Birmingham, Alabama, included fellow Civil Rights activists and attracted wide attention, including students, faculty, and administrators from various universities. Further cementing his role as an educator and activist, Lawson joined California State University Northridge (CSUN) as a visiting faculty member for the 2010-11 academic year. He spearheaded the Civil Discourse and Social Change initiative, which focused on current educational policy and budget battles. His insights and strategic thinking greatly enriched the campus community. In a partnership with the University of California Los Angeles, Lawson co-taught “Labor Studies M173: Nonviolence and Social Movements,” alongside Kent Wong, director of the UCLA Labor Center. This collaboration, spanning multiple academic departments, showcased Lawson’s interdisciplinary approach to activism and education. In a fitting tribute to his enduring influence, James Lawson High School opened in Nashville, Tennessee, on July 28, 2023. The school’s establishment is a testament to Lawson’s lifelong dedication to civil rights and education, continuing his legacy for future generations. For more information about the school, visit https://lawson.mnps.org/.