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Rev. Lawson remembered as man ‘of more courage than power’

Wave Staff and Wire Services

SOUTH LOS ANGELES — The Rev. James Lawson Jr. was remembered as “one of the most important human beings of this or any other age” July 6 during a memorial service at Holman United Methodist Church where he served as senior pastor for more than 25 years.

The church was packed with community leaders and other worshippers who paid tribute to the late civil rights icon who died last month at age 95.

Historian Jon Meacham, who authored a major biography of the civil rights leader, was among the speakers at the service.

He said Lawson was “one of the most important Americans — one of the most important human beings of this or any other age” for his contributions to the civil rights achievements of the 1960s, and said he was “as worthy of our respect as Washington or Jefferson.”

Mayor Karen Bass also spoke at the service.

“Today we’re gathered to celebrate the life of a giant,” she said. “He dedicated his life to equality and justice and helped train generations of leaders, including Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.”

Bass also credited Lawson with helping inspire her own career in public service, and said he helped her and others establish a youth coalition to battle the crack cocaine epidemic in the 1980s.

Several other speakers, including former Los Angeles City Councilman and County Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas honored Lawson for his friendship and teachings on non-violence.

State Sen. Maria Elena Durazo, D-Los Angeles, said her career in politics had taught her that many people “have more power than courage,” but Lawson’s life was a lesson in what people could accomplish when they had “more courage than power.”

Lawson died in Los Angeles on June 9 after a brief illness. His passing touched off tributes from across the country, including from President Joe Biden.

“Jill and I are saddened by the loss of one of our nation’s noblest leaders,” Biden said in a statement after the death. “His passing before Juneteenth is a reminder that our nation’s journey from slavery to freedom started in the hearts of people like James Lawson spellbound by freedom. We send our condolences to the Lawson family as our nation mourns a man who helped redeem the soul of our nation.”

Lawson was pastor of Holman United Methodist Church from 1974 until his retirement in 1999. A mile-long stretch of Adams Boulevard from Crenshaw Boulevard to Arlington Avenue in front of the church was co-named in January as the Reverend James Lawson Mile.

Born James Morris Lawson Jr. Sept. 22, 1928, in Uniontown, Pennsylvania, the son and grandson of Methodist ministers, Lawson was raised in Massillon, Ohio.

While a student at Baldwin-Wallace College in Berea, Ohio, Lawson was drafted by the U.S. Army, but refused to serve due to his belief in nonviolence and was sentenced to two years in prison.

Released after 13 months, Lawson returned to college to finish his education, then traveled to Nagpur, India as a Methodist missionary to study the nonviolence resistance tactics developed by Mahatma Gandhi.

Lawson returned to the United States in 1956, entering the Graduate School of Theology at Oberlin College in Ohio. According to a biography from the Stanford University-based Martin Luther King, Jr. Research & Education Institute, one of Lawson’s Oberlin professors introduced him to King, who had also embraced Gandhi’s principles of nonviolent resistance.

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, Tennessee where he attended Vanderbilt University and began teaching nonviolent protest techniques.

In February 1960, following lunch counter sit-ins initiated by students at a Woolworth’s store in Greensboro, North Carolina, Lawson and several local activists launched a similar protest in Nashville’s downtown stores. More than 150 students were arrested before city leaders agreed to desegregate some lunch counters.

Lawson was expelled from Vanderbilt in March 1960 because of his involvement with Nashville’s desegregation movement. Lawson eventually reconciled with Vanderbilt and returned to teach as a distinguished university professor. Vanderbilt established a institute for the research and study of nonviolent movements bearing his name in 2021.

Lawson participated in the 1961 Freedom Rides that challenged segregation on interstate buses and bus terminals.

Lawson became pastor of Centenary Methodist Church in Memphis, Tennessee in 1962. In 1968, when Black sanitation workers in Memphis began a strike for higher wages and union recognition after two of their co-workers were accidentally crushed to death, Lawson served as chairman of their strike committee.

Lawson and King led a march in support of the strikers on March 28, 1968, which erupted in violence and was immediately called off.

In what would be his final speech on April 3, 1968, one day before his assassination, King spoke of Lawson as one of the “noble men” who had influenced the Black freedom struggle.

“He’s been going to jail for struggling; he’s been kicked out of Vanderbilt University for this struggling; but he’s still going on, fighting for the rights of his people,” King said.

Photo by Lorenzo Gomez

       
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