James Lawson, an architect of civil rights nonviolence, dies at 95 (2024)

The Rev. James M. Lawson, a United Methodist minister who became a principal tactician of nonviolent protest during the civil rights movement, leading sit-ins, marches and Freedom Rides that withstood attacks by mobs and police throughout the 1960s, died June 9. He was 95.

He died of cardiac arrest en route to a Los Angeles hospital, said his son J. Morris Lawson III.

As a young Methodist missionary, Rev. Lawson traveled to India, where he studied the principles of civil disobedience practiced by the anti-colonialist leader Mohandas K. Gandhi in his campaign against repressive British rule.

He also spent 13 months in prison after refusing to register for the draft during the Korean War and was a graduate student at Ohio’s Oberlin College in 1957 when the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., the Atlanta minister and civil rights activist, came to campus to speak.


King shared a zeal for Gandhi’s teachings and implored Rev. Lawson to put his beliefs into practice in the segregated American South.

“Don’t wait! Come now! We don’t have anyone like you down there,” he pleaded, according to author David Halberstam’s history of the civil rights movement, “The Children.”

The next year, Rev. Lawson headed to Vanderbilt University’s divinity school in Nashville, where he was one of the few Black people on campus. He began conducting workshops on nonviolent protest for King’s newly formed Southern Christian Leadership Conference, which was to become a central organization in the civil rights movement.

Rev. Lawson was outwardly “mild and gentle,” Halberstam wrote, “but he was a true radical Christian who feared neither prison nor death.”

King appointed Rev. Lawson the SCLC’s director of nonviolent education in 1962, and his strict adherence to peaceful protest formed the bedrock of the group’s philosophy. “I told them we have the instruments in our hearts, in our hands, in our minds for change,” he later recalled to a reporter. “The sins of a nation can be changed.”

Civil rights chroniclers credit Rev. Lawson with playing a leading role in the opening in 1960 of restaurants, movie theaters, city buses, public restrooms and municipal swimming pools in Nashville, one of the first major Southern cities to desegregate public accommodations.

He recalled being motivated by a middle-class Black woman who attended one of his workshops and described the indignities that she and her friends faced when they went shopping downtown with their children to find restrooms, coffee shops and children’s play areas in department stores available only to White patrons.

“I did not know what my own mother or sisters with their families faced as they moved around doing the work of the family: the shopping, the caring for the rest of us and the like,” he told interviewers for the civil rights documentary “Eyes on the Prize.”

In “The Children,” Halberstam described one sit-in where protesters became caught up in a menacing confrontation. At one point, a White man wearing a black leather motorcycle jacket spat on Rev. Lawson, who then gently asked if the man had a handkerchief.

The man, stunned by the polite request, handed one to him. Rev. Lawson calmly cleaned himself, then asked the man if he owned a motorbike or a hot rod. When the man replied proudly that he had customized his chopper, Rev. Lawson engaged him in a technical discussion of motorcycles.


“In that brief frightening moment,” Halberstam wrote, Rev. Lawson “had managed to find a subject which they both shared and had used it in a way that made each of them more human in the eyes of the other. … In that split second of confrontation Jim Lawson had not only conquered his ego, he had forced his enemy in some basic way to try and see him as a man.”

Among the student recruits for his sit-ins were John Lewis, who later became a Georgia congressman; future D.C. Mayor Marion S. Barry; and future civil rights leaders and activists Diane Nash, James Bevel and Bernard Lafayette.

Rev. Lawson was among the first Freedom Riders arrested in Jackson, Miss., in 1961, as the activists sought to integrate interstate bus and train travel. During the “Bloody Sunday” clash of March 1965, he was among the protesters beaten by authorities at the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Ala., during a march for voting rights.


In 1968, Rev. Lawson was heading a church in Memphis when the city’s sanitation workers — after years of preparation and organizing — went on strike for better pay and working conditions. He persuaded King to help lead the protests, and days later, on the evening of April 4, King was assassinated outside his room at the city’s Lorraine Motel. (Rev. Lawson was at home having dinner with his family when he got word.)

Years later, Rev. Lawson visited King’s convicted assassin, James Earl Ray, in prison, ministering to him and publicly supporting one of various theories shared among civil rights leaders that Ray was only peripherally involved in the murder and had been framed as the killer.

Of his relationship with Ray, who died in 1998, he told an interviewer: “I did not see it as something apart from the love of God or the love of Jesus.”


The sixth of nine siblings, James Morris Lawson Jr. was born in Uniontown, Pa., on Sept. 22, 1928, and grew up in Massillon, Ohio. His father, an itinerant African Methodist Episcopal minister, often carried a gun, while his Jamaican-born mother opposed force or its threat, preferring to settle conflict through negotiation and forgiveness.

Rev. Lawson related to Halberstam an experience at age 10 that he said set him on the path to Gandhian pacifism. On an errand for his mother, he was crossing a street when a White child, roughly 5 years old and seated alone in a parked car, yelled a racial epithet at him. Rev. Lawson reached through the car window and slapped the child hard across the face. He then went home and proudly recounted the story to his mother.

“What good did that do, Jimmy?” she asked, her back to him as she cooked. “We all love you, Jimmy, and God loves you, and we all believe in you and how good and intelligent you are. … With all that love, what harm does that stupid insult do? It’s nothing, Jimmy, it’s empty. Just ignorant words from an ignorant child who is gone from your life the moment it was said.”


Attending the Methodist-affiliated Baldwin-Wallace College in Berea, Ohio, he studied under the prominent pacifist A.J. Muste. After the interruption of his 13-month draft-resistance prison term — he declined to accept a student deferment as a ministerial candidate, considering it a “moral and ethical sellout,” according to Halberstam — Rev. Lawson graduated in 1952.

He returned from his mission to India in 1956 and completed work at the Oberlin College graduate school of theology before entering Vanderbilt.

As he began organizing sit-ins, he trained students from Black colleges in the practicalities of passive resistance — from learning to ignore racial slurs and deflect body blows to readying bail money and stationing observers to call for ambulances. The sit-ins became a model for such protests across much of the South.


The sit-ins increasingly drew national attention, and the Vanderbilt trustees expelled Rev. Lawson. He transferred to Boston University, where he received a master’s degree in theology in 1960.

The year before, he married Dorothy Wood. In addition to his wife and son, survivors include another son, John C. Lawson II, all of Los Angeles; a brother; and three grandchildren. His son C. Seth Lawson died in 2019.

In the 1960s and early 1970s, Rev. Lawson served churches and civil rights organizations in Tennessee and expanded his activism to include opposition to the Vietnam War and the broader Cold War. He transferred to Los Angeles in 1974 and was named senior pastor of Holman United Methodist Church, a 2,700-member, largely Black congregation.

With the most elemental civil rights battles won in the South, the movement began to shift, and a growing militancy and separatism emerged in segments of the Black community. Some leaders — notably Stokely Carmichael, who took over the influential Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee from more moderate organizers — split from King’s church-based integrationist goals.


Rev. Lawson remained unmoved in his adherence to pacifism and integration. He retired from Holman and the ministry in 1999, but he continued teaching nonviolence and pursued additional social causes, including support of labor unions, gay rights, expanded abortion access and liberalization of immigration policy.

In 2006, Vanderbilt, after expelling Rev. Lawson 46 years earlier, invited him to return as a visiting professor. He also accepted a request to leave his papers with the school’s archives.

In one of his first visiting lectures there, a student asked him about Islamic extremism. “I don’t happen to think that Islam is the most violent religion,” he answered. “I think Christianity is. As a Christian, I think we need to think about ourselves first and clean up our own act.”

James Lawson, an architect of civil rights nonviolence, dies at 95 (2024)


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