James Lawson, Civil Rights Activist and MLK’s Chief Strategist, Dies at 95

Martin Luther King Jr.’s family, Chef José Andrés, Cornel West and numerous others mourn the legendary nonviolent protest leader

James Lawson accepts the Chairman's Award during the 52nd NAACP Image Awards on March 27, 2021
James Lawson accepts the Chairman's Award during the 52nd NAACP Image Awards on March 27, 2021 (NAACP via Getty Images)

James Lawson, storied civil rights activist and chief strategist for Martin Luther King Jr., has died. Lawson was 95 years old.

As a young man, Lawson gained national attention when he refused to report for the draft in 1951 during the Korean War. He was arrested and spent 14 months in prison. After his release, Lawson traveled to India for three years to learn Mahatma Gandhi’s principles of civil disobedience. He brought the practice of nonviolent protest back to the United States, where he led lunch counter sit-ins in Nashville. The city became the first in the south to desegregate its downtown.

Lawson met King in 1957. It was King who encouraged Lawson to take his new lessons to Nashville, where he established workshops in church basements attended by other leaders such as John Lewis, Diane Nash, Bernard Lafayette, the Freedom Riders and more.

His death has impacted many. Bernice King, Martin Luther King Jr.’s daughter, remembered him on social media, where she wrote, “‘The world won’t get no better if we just let it be.’ Rev. #JamesLawson Jr. embodied these lyrics. He was a courageous nonviolent strategist who taught many to meet injustice with what my father called ‘soul force.’ My condolences to his family. May his legacy live on.”

Her brother Martin Luther King III tweeted, “@ArndreaKing and I were saddened to hear about the passing of Rev. James Lawson. I always have had tremendous admiration and deep respect for all he contributed to the civil rights movement. We are praying for his family and the many, many others he inspired through his courageous leadership. His legacy left an indelible mark on humanity.”

Chef José Andrés wrote, “A great human Rev. James Lawson Jr. with a great vision! Non violent protest……! Peace should be the only way forward…. What is good for me must be good for you! You respect me as I will respect you….love and peace!”

Academic and 2024 independent presidential candidate Cornel West tweeted, “We just lost a moral giant and spiritual genius- Rev. James Lawson, one of the greatest freedom fighters of our time! His courage and compassion was incredible! His prophetic witness shall forever burn in my heart!”

“Reverend James Lawson is my hero,” comedian Paula Poundstone wrote, before adding, “I guess James Lawson has died. For those not familiar with him, read THE CHILDREN, by David Halberstam. He was a real live hero.”

Numerous politicians were also among those mourning Lawson’s death.

In a 2015 TEDx Talk, Lawson explained that not everyone believed in the potential of nonviolent protest at first. “We had people who don’t believe it’s possible,” he said. “So one of my first tasks, in my own mind, was to persuade them that there’s enough history of the sit-in and of nonviolent practice. The famous quote [from] Diane Nash is, ‘I didn’t think nonviolence would work, but nobody else was trying to do anything about this system.’”

Lawson was also the man who organized the 1968 sanitation workers strike that brought King to Memphis, Tennessee, where he was assassinated. Lawson, then a pastor at Centenary Methodist Church, invited King to speak to the workers. The revered civil rights icon was shot the next day.

“What was left unsaid on that day, perhaps, might have been how much I appreciated his life and his leadership and to the extent to which I understood that to be indeed a carrying of the Cross that very few people recognized or understood,” Lawson said.

In the same talk, Lawson recalled an early moment from his childhood that spurred his future activism. “I had my first racial insult hurled at me as a child,” he began. “I struck out at that child and fought the child physically. Mom was in the kitchen working. In telling her the story she, without turning to me, said, ‘Jimmy, what good did that do?’”

“And she did a long soliloquy then about our lives and who we were and the love of God and the love of Jesus in our home, in our congregation. And her last sentence was, ‘Jimmy, there must be a better way.’ In many ways, that’s the pivotal event of my life.”

Lawson was born to Philane May Cover and James Morris Lawson, Sr. on Sept 22, 1928. He graduated from Baldwin-Wallace College in 1951 and Boston University in 1960, and studied at Oberlin College’s School of Theology from 1956-1957 and Vanderbilt University from 1958-1960.

He moved to Tennessee at King’s urging and worked with students at Vanderbilt as well as at the quartet of schools that make up the oldest Black centers of higher education in the south: Fisk University, Meharry Medical College, Tennessee State and American Baptist Theological colleges. More than 150 students were arrested in February 1960 before Nashville’s leaders gave in to their demands.

The protests were not easy. Bernard LaFayette, a former roommate of Lewis’ at American Baptist Theological Seminary (now American Baptist College), told the Associated Press that during a protest, “This guy spat on Jim Lawson. And what did Jim Lawson do? He asked him for a handkerchief.”

Former Fisk student Angeline Butler chimed in, “Well, he took off his glasses, and he needed to wipe them clean, and he didn’t have a handkerchief. So he asked the guy to give him a handkerchief, and the guy felt so guilty that he did!” LaFayette added that the offended man was wearing a motorcycle jacket and Lawson soon engaged him in a conversation about two-wheeled vehicles.

Lawson and student leaders (including Lewis and Nash) organized the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) in 1960. He also brought King to the city that April. During his visit, King spoke to students at Fisk and said he came to the city “not to bring inspiration, but to gain inspiration from the great movement that has taken place in this community.”

After segregationists had Lawson removed from Vanderbilt, he and his wife, Dorothy Wood Lawson, moved to Memphis, where Lawson led the Holman United Methodist Church. The pair eventually moved to Los Angeles after King’s assassination, where Lawson taught at California State University, Northridge and UCLA. He and his wife raised three sons together.

Civil rights nonprofit the Southern Poverty Law Center also remembered Lawson on X (formerly Twitter). The organization tweeted, “The SPLC joins the world in mourning the loss of the Rev. James Lawson Jr., a civil rights activist who led sit-ins, marches and Freedom Rides. Today we remember the Rev. James Lawson Jr. as we continue pushing for equality and justice. Rest in power. #TheMarchContinues.”

Lawson is survived by his wife, two sons, a brother and three grandchildren. His son C. Seth Lawson died in 2019.

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