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James Lawson Celebrated as a 21st Century Human Rights Icon Whose Passing is a “Profound Loss”

Staff

      The City of Los Angeles is celebrating—and remembering— the life of Rev. James Morris Lawson Jr., preacher, university professor, contemporary of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and master tactician on nonviolence who led Nashville sit-ins, Freedom Rides, and served as a mentor to a generation of civil rights activists including John Lewis. Lawson, who passed on Sunday, June 9 after a brief illness, was 95. 

      “Today Los Angeles joins the state, country, and world in mourning the loss of a civil rights leader whose critical leadership, teachings, and mentorship confronted and crippled centuries of systemic oppression, racism, and injustice,” Bass said in a statement released on Monday.

      Bass is among the many elected officials and city leaders who benefitted from the advice and tutelage of Lawson whose life in the civil rights movement as well as his 25-year tenure as senior pastor at Holman United Methodist Church in Los Angeles was a testament to his unwavering dedication to justice, nonviolence, and equality. 

      “Rev. Dr. James M. Lawson, Jr., was a 20th and 21st-century human rights icon, and devotee of non-violence, a well-known contemporary of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and the civil rights movement’s teacher of non-violent philosophy and strategy—a lifestyle he never relinquished,” said Dr. Mark Ridley-Thomas. “The breadth of his witness is unparalleled across race, gender, age, orientation, creed and national origin. For those of us who knew, respected, and loved him, his passing is an unmistakably profound loss.”

      “We have lost a giant,” posted Tavis Smiley.

      For L.A. County Supervisor Holly Mitchell, the loss was personal.

      “As a child growing up at Holman United Methodist Church, I was captivated by the resonance of Rev. Lawson’s voice,” Mitchell wrote in a statement posted online. “As an adult, Rev Lawson continued to have an impact on my life, I read his teachings, participated in his non-violence training sessions, and traveled to the home and final resting place of Gandhi. I grew to both understand and embrace his concept of the evils of “plantation Capitalism” and have been inspired by him, like countless others, to work to manifest his vision of love over violence in my everyday life. Rev. Lawson was a civil rights icon, mentor, and friend. In his name, we will continue to fight for justice, peace, and love for all.”

      Born on September 22, 1928, in Uniontown, Pennsylvania, Lawson grew up witnessing the injustices of segregation and racial discrimination. His parents’ commitment to education and social justice deeply influenced him. After serving in the Korean War, Lawson pursued his studies, earning degrees in divinity and theology.

      It was during his time as a student at Vanderbilt University in the 1950s that Lawson became actively involved in the civil rights movement. Inspired by the teachings of Mahatma Gandhi and the philosophy of nonviolent resistance, he became a key strategist and organizer within the movement.

      Lawson played a pivotal role in the Nashville sit-in movement, where he trained countless activists in the principles of nonviolent direct action. His commitment to nonviolence and his unwavering belief in the power of love and reconciliation became hallmarks of his activism.

      Despite facing numerous arrests, beatings, and threats to his life, Lawson remained steadfast in his commitment to justice. He worked closely with leaders such as Martin Luther King Jr., helping organize and lead some of the era’s most significant protests and marches, including the Freedom Rides and the Selma to Montgomery march.

      Following the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, Lawson continued his work as a tireless advocate for social change. He dedicated himself to addressing issues of economic inequality, war, and injustice, both in the United States and around the world.

      Lawson was also key in forming the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and was active in the Martin Luther King Jr.-led Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) and the Congress of Racial Equity (CORE).

      Moving to Los Angeles in 1974, his impact was just as profoundly felt in his tenure as senior pastor of Holman United Methodist Church where he continued to advocate for worker’s rights in the labor movement and served as the chairman of the Laity United for Economic Justice. He spearheaded California State University Northridge‘s (CSUN) Civil Discourse and Social Change initiative as a visiting faculty member for the academic year of 2010/11, where he continued to serve as a visiting scholar teaching a semester-long course on nonviolence.

      “Rev. James Lawson was the embodiment of a soul force. A fierce lover of God, his family, and humanity,” said Pastor Eddie Anderson. To his colleagues and pupils, he was a fount of wisdom, hope, love, and courage. To America, he was the chief architect of a new social contract focused on equity—I was grateful to walk with him, learn from him, and be shaped by him. He just wanted to be a friend to so many of us and help us unlock the power of love.”

      Earlier this year, L.A. City Councilwoman Heather Hutt dedicated “the Reverend Lawson Mile” to the late activist on Adams Boulevard. The one-mile stretch on Adams Boulevard honors Lawson’s efforts in the city where his imprint was felt for over a quarter of a century while serving as senior pastor at Holman United Methodist Church. 

      “Rev. Lawson’s leadership throughout the decade was instrumental in the desegregation of the South, and his teaching on nonviolence practices and civil disobedience continue to inspire generations of civil rights leaders across the country,” a city resolution read.

      Lawson leaves behind a legacy that includes his wife, Dorothy Wood, and three children. Funeral services are pending.

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