Rev. James Lawson, made Nashville lunch counter sit-ins a mannequin for combating racial obstacles, has died


James M. Lawson Jr., a Methodist minister who turned the instructor of the civil rights motion, coaching a whole lot of youthful protesters in nonviolent techniques that made the Nashville lunch counter sit-ins a mannequin for combating racial inequality within the Sixties, has died. He was 95.

Lawson, who for many years labored as a pastor, labor motion organizer and college professor, died Sunday of cardiac arrest en path to a Los Angeles hospital, his son J. Morris Lawson III advised the Washington Publish.

Recruited by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., Lawson organized and led weekly workshops on nonviolent motion in Nashville and different scorching spots of the motion. The workshops educated many future leaders of the Scholar Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, together with Rep. John Lewis.

“I actually felt … that he was God-sent,” Lewis as soon as wrote of Lawson. “There was one thing of a mystic about him, one thing holy, so gathered, about his method…. The person was a born instructor, within the truest sense of the phrase.”

Referred to as “the main nonviolence theorist” by King, Lawson had studied Gandhi’s philosophy in India earlier than becoming a member of the wrestle within the South. He led seminars all through the area and have become a roving troubleshooter for the Southern Christian Management Convention.

In 1968, he invited King to talk to hanging sanitation staff in Memphis, the place the charismatic preacher, who had anticipated his personal dying, was assassinated.

Lawson labored with varied civil rights teams within the South till 1974, when he moved to L.A. to change into pastor of Holman United Methodist Church. He led the church for 25 years. He retired in 1999 however remained an activist for peace and social justice.

Los Angeles Mayor Karen Bass, in a press release Monday, stated, “Reverend James Lawson Jr.’s life and legacy reverberates within the persevering with motion to advance social and financial justice in Los Angeles and past. He devoted his life to equality and justice and helped practice a era of nationwide leaders. … These teachings modified the course of historical past.

“Right here in Los Angeles, Reverend Lawson taught many activists and organizers and helped form the civil rights and labor motion regionally simply as he did nationally. … Reverend Lawson was additionally a useful mentor to me — I continued searching for his counsel all through my time as an organizer, an activist and as an elected official. He was there for me as I do know he was there for numerous civic and religion leaders right here in Los Angeles who have been guided and influenced by his teachings.”

James M. Lawson Jr., the son of a proud Black preacher, didn’t all the time follow nonviolence. As a younger boy in Ohio within the Nineteen Thirties, he smacked a white baby for shouting a racial slur at him.

Fortunately for Lawson, there have been no repercussions — till he received residence.

“Jimmy,” his mom stated when he advised her what he had carried out, “what good did that do? There should be a greater method.”

Busy within the kitchen, she didn’t have a look at him when she delivered her reprimand, however her phrases resonated. Lawson felt his world “simply type of stopped,” he later recalled. “And someplace method within the deep of me I heard myself saying, ‘I’ll discover that higher method.’”

His search led him to India, the place he studied Mohandas Okay. Gandhi’s concepts about nonviolent resistance. After returning to the USA, he utilized what he had realized to the civil rights motion, mixing Gandhi’s ideas with biblical insights to change into what the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. would name “the main nonviolence theorist” of the period.

Lawson was a pivotal determine in a few of the most necessary campaigns of the motion, together with the Nashville lunch counter sit-ins, the primary Freedom Experience and the social justice battles he led as pastor of Holman United Methodist Church in L.A.

The Montgomery bus boycott King launched in 1955 had proved the efficiency of nonviolent protest. Nevertheless it was Lawson who introduced disciplined instruction to the youthful protesters who would take the civil rights motion to the subsequent stage. He taught them not solely the lofty ideas of passive resistance but additionally basic techniques, together with find out how to face up to taunts and bodily assaults, keep away from breaking loitering legal guidelines, “even find out how to costume” for a sit-in, historian Taylor Department wrote, which meant “stockings and heels for the ladies, coats and ties for the fellows.”

His nonviolence workshops nurtured lots of the leaders who would propel the motion within the Sixties, together with Lewis, who was one of many organizers of the Scholar Nonviolent Coordinating Committee.

“I couldn’t have discovered a greater instructor than Jim Lawson,” Lewis wrote in his 1999 memoir. “It isn’t onerous to seek out forgiveness. And this, Jim Lawson taught us, is on the essence of the nonviolent lifestyle.”

Born Sept. 22, 1928, in Uniontown, Pa., Lawson grew up in Massillon, Ohio, the son of a Jamaican-born seamstress and an itinerant Methodist minister who packed a gun when he traveled within the South. His father “believed that I ought to battle to defend myself,” Lawson, the sixth of 9 youngsters, recalled in a 2000 interview with Nationwide Public Radio.

He was in highschool within the Forties when he staged his first sit-in, concentrating on a Massillon restaurant that refused to serve Blacks. The proprietor served him however advised him by no means to return again.

After highschool, he attended Baldwin-Wallace Faculty, a Methodist faculty in Berea, Ohio, and joined the pacifist Fellowship of Reconciliation. When he was referred to as to army responsibility in the course of the Korean Battle, he refused the draft and was despatched to jail for 14 months.

In 1953, Lawson joined a Methodist mission to India and devoted himself to learning Gandhian nonviolence. He was nonetheless in India in late 1955 when he learn a newspaper story in regards to the Montgomery bus boycott. “I noticed that as a solution to a prayer,” Lawson, in a 1984 Occasions interview, stated of the protest that was led by King. “My response was to begin shouting for pleasure.”

He returned to the U.S. in 1956 and enrolled within the Graduate Faculty of Theology at Oberlin Faculty, the place he met King in 1957. King, who had come to Oberlin to talk, urged Lawson to affix the motion.

In 1958, Lawson moved to Nashville and enrolled in Vanderbilt College’s divinity program. He additionally joined the Nashville Christian Management Council and started holding workshops on nonviolence.

Lawson relied closely on role-playing, and infrequently requested college students to taunt others with racial insults to assist them be taught self-restraint. He confirmed the scholars find out how to run an orderly sit-in by filling lunch counter seats in shifts. He additionally confirmed them methods to reduce accidents by sustaining eye contact with their assailants and utilizing their our bodies to assist distribute the blows that have been certain to return.

In November 1959, Lawson’s college students staged three follow sit-ins. “We simply did it quietly,” with out press protection, he advised The Occasions in 2014. “We referred to as them a part of our discovery course of.”

He reduce quick the coaching interval after college students in Greensboro, N.C., obtained nationwide media consideration with a sequence of impromptu sit-ins that started on Feb. 1, 1960. A couple of weeks later, the Nashville college students — a “nonviolent military” about 500 sturdy, drawn from Fisk College and different native schools — leaped into motion, occupying three downtown Nashville lunch counters. Over the subsequent three months, extra institutions have been focused, together with bus terminals and main department shops.

“It was clear we had a really disciplined motion … with college students as our major vitality,” Lawson stated.

When 81 college students have been attacked by a gaggle of whites and subsequently arrested, Lawson was expelled from Vanderbilt. School members resigned in protest, producing headlines throughout the nation.

The turning level got here when the house of an legal professional for the jailed protesters was bombed, triggering a mass march to Nashville Metropolis Corridor and a boycott of white-owned companies. In Might 1960, three weeks after the mayor appealed to white residents to finish discrimination, Nashville lunch counters started to serve Blacks and sit-in campaigns quickly unfold to dozens of different Southern cities.

Lawson believed that sit-ins have been more practical than lawsuits, which he criticized in a 1960 speech at Shaw College in North Carolina as “middle-class standard, midway efforts” to cope with grave social injustice.

Longtime activist Julian Bond recalled in “Voices of Freedom,” an oral historical past of the motion, that Lawson sounded “just like the unhealthy youthful brother pushing King to do extra, to be extra militant” and had “a way more bold thought of what nonviolence might do.”

The day following Lawson’s speech, the Scholar Nonviolent Coordinating Committee was based with a press release of goal drafted by Lawson. Initially led by Marion Barry, the long run mayor of Washington, SNCC helped drive main civil rights campaigns, together with voter registration tasks and the 1961 Freedom Rides.

When the primary Freedom Experience was derailed by mob violence, a small group of Nashville college students educated by Lawson accomplished the harmful bus journey from Montgomery, Ala., to Jackson, Miss. Lawson accompanied them and was arrested together with different Freedom Riders in Mississippi after a few of the protesters entered the whites-only restrooms on the Jackson terminal. At Lawson’s urging, they refused bail, which impelled a whole lot of different college students to affix the campaign towards segregated interstate journey.

In 1962, Lawson turned pastor of Centenary United Methodist Church in Memphis. He left for L.A. in 1974 when he was employed to steer Holman United Methodist Church.

Over the subsequent 25 years, till his retirement in 1999, he remained a outstanding activist. He was co-chair of the Gathering, a gaggle of 200 South Los Angeles clergymen who protested the Los Angeles police taking pictures of Eula Love in 1979, and headed the Los Angeles chapter of the Southern Christian Management Convention. He was arrested a number of occasions at protests, together with a rally towards U.S. army support to El Salvador within the late Nineteen Eighties. In 2000 he risked a church trial for blessing a lesbian wedding ceremony.

After Lewis died in 2020, Lawson, on the age of 91, paid tribute to the congressman alongside three former U.S. presidents at a memorial service at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta. In an eloquent eulogy bookended by the poetry of Czeslaw Milosz and Langston Hughes, he exhorted Individuals to “follow the politics of the preamble to the Structure” because the “solely method” to honor Lewis’ life.

He stated he had no regrets in regards to the fateful invitation he prolonged to King to handle hanging sanitation staff in Memphis in 1968. King was assassinated there a day after giving his well-known “Mountaintop” speech, wherein he spoke of his dream of equality and added, “I could not get there with you.”

“Martin anticipated his dying,” Lawson advised The Occasions in 2004. “I don’t know if he particularly anticipated it on that day, however he had identified since Montgomery that he may very well be shot down … any time.”

Questioning what sort of individual would commit such against the law, Lawson started visiting the convicted killer, James Earl Ray, in jail. He got here to imagine, as did members of the King household, that Ray was harmless and pushed unsuccessfully for a brand new trial. When Ray determined to marry a sketch artist who had lined his arraignment, he requested Lawson to conduct the jail ceremony.

“It was not simply that I doubted his guilt; it went far past that,” Lawson advised historian John Egerton years later. “I knew that if Martin have been alive and in my place, he would have married them even when he knew Ray was responsible. As considered one of my sons stated to me, ‘For those who imagine all that stuff you’ve been preaching, you’ll do it.’

“He was proper, after all.”

Lawson is survived by his spouse, Dorothy Wooden, and two sons, J. Morris Lawson III and John Lawson; a brother, Phillip; and three grandchildren. His son C. Seth Lawson died in 2019.

Woo is a former Occasions employees author.


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