Credited as the architect of the Civil Rights Movement, Rev. James Lawson played an integral role in the nonviolent protests of the south in the 1960s.
Lawson was called upon by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to teach his practices of nonviolence to students in order to protest against racial discrimination laws. Now in his 90s, his life’s work is being recognized.
In 2022, a bill was introduced to award Lawson with a Congressional Gold Medal, and in 2021 Vanderbilt University honored him with an institute and UCLA named its Labor Center after him.
He opens up about his life and legacy on “LA Stories” with Giselle Fernandez.
“There is a quiet confidence and a deep sort of gladness that I have helped many people understand what faith is, to do social action, political action,” said Lawson. “I’ve helped many people understand nonviolent struggle. And that, in turn, has had great ramifications.”
In the 1950s, Lawson spent 13 months in prison for refusing the Korean War draft. After being released, he traveled to India, where he learned Gandhi’s practices of nonviolence. He took these practices back to the U.S., where he met King, and together they began their fight for justice. Lawson went to work, preparing protesters with nonviolent tactics and showing them how to respond when confronted with violence. He organized student sit-ins, marches, protests and the historic freedom rides of the 1960s. The movement grew, and segregation laws in the south were soon deemed unlawful.
“It simply meant to me that this was a movement on the right path, to help the United States become a nation where its own historical documents come true,” said Lawson.
Continuing the fight for equality, in 1968, Lawson called upon King to speak to the crowd during the Memphis Sanitation Workers’ Strike. It would be the last speech that King would ever give. The next day, he was assassinated. The loss was a painful one for Lawson.
“It was grief that lasted several months in the painful stages, but it was grief that also had the purpose of trying to work with how we can move the movement onward,” he said.
Lawson moved to Los Angeles in 1974, where he became pastor of the Holman United Methodist Church.
Today, now retired, he continues to fight for equal rights for all and says that while the protests against racism in 2020 have been successful, we must keep up the fight against all injustice.
“As far as I can see, the journey of the race has to be toward dismantling the old wrongs, helping new structures to take the place that will correct them and change them.”
Watch "LA Stories with Giselle Fernandez" at 9 p.m. every Monday on Spectrum News 1.