The L.A. Urban League Board of Directors paid tribute to Ambassador Michael Lawson, center, during a celebration on Jan. 9. (Lila Brown/L.A. Sentinel)

The Los Angeles Urban League saluted its former President and CEO Michael A. Lawson on Jan. 9, with a “League to Legend” Farewell Celebration at the Skirball Cultural Center in Los Angeles.  The event was held in appreciation for his service to the premier civic rights organization.  

During his five-year tenure, Ambassador Lawson led the L.A. Urban League through challenging times to a financial turnaround that enabled the iconic civil rights institution to successfully mark more than 100 years of service to the city.  

Cynthia Mitchell-Heard, whose new role as president/CEO became effective on Jan. 1, welcomed guests expressing their congratulations as the ceremony also symbolized a passing of the torch. Heard became the first woman to assume this leadership role since Katherine Barr, LAUL president from the late 1920s until 1931. 

Jonathan Lawson, Mattie McFadden-Lawson, and Michael Lawson. (Lila Brown/L.A. Sentinel)

“I am extremely proud of the respect that the Los Angeles Urban League is presently receiving. We once again have the trust of our sponsors, funders, partners and constituents,” said Lawson.  

“I’ve had the extraordinary pleasure of working with an exceptional team of dedicated individuals who have consistently outperformed expectations. I believe that Cynthia Mitchell Heard will take the Los Angeles Urban League to higher heights. She is intelligent, resourceful and uniquely qualified for this assignment.”  

When Lawson arrived at the LAUL, the organization was facing escalating deficits, decreasing revenues, and a shortage of talent. Lawson engineered a turnaround that prioritized the needs of underserved communities and provided funders with a trustworthy steward and a bold vision for making a difference in the lives and communities of African Americans throughout Los Angeles. The budget was balanced within three years and the organization became, once again, a driver of change, a community connection for jobs and resources, and a powerful voice against injustice and economic inequity.  

Jonathan Lawson, Mattie McFadden-Lawson, and Michael Lawson. (Lila Brown/L.A. Sentinel)

“We are so grateful to your leadership Ambassador Lawson. You created these successes and partnerships that have secured us at the Los Angeles Urban League. We prevail and salute you. You’re a true icon and legend. Let us all applaud his work,” said Heard as she addressed the intimate crowd during the sendoff.   

“As you pass the baton to me, it is my intent to take this agency to even greater heights. I am humbled that you’ve allowed my help, the Board of Directors, and all of us to continue your great work to elevate the league. We stand on your shoulders and recognize our responsibility to those who will come after us.” 

LAUL Board Member Mark Cornwell led the program looking back on Lawson’s extraordinary achievements throughout his career and Councilwoman Heather Hutt presented a proclamation. Other distinguished guests included Jessie Kornberg, Skirball Cultural Center president/CEO who is also a LAUL Board member.   

Lawson’s wife, Mattie McFadden-Lawson, and son, Jonathan Lawson, provided personal perspectives behind being the support system for a leader that has served many throughout his lifetime. 

A former partner with Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom with a Juris Doctorate from Harvard Law, Lawson was heading into retirement after serving as an ambassador in the Obama administration. Then he was called to serve once more, this time as the president and CEO of the LAUL where he led the organization through a series of historic challenges from which it emerged as a stronger institution with a solid financial foundation and an ambitious programmatic vision.   

“We have been incredibly blessed with Michael Lawson’s leadership and the confidence he has inspired in everyone who deals with him,” said Elliot Hinds, LAUL board chair.  

“He has filled the room with integrity and clarity on the L.A. Urban League’s place in Los Angeles. His accomplishments have been brightly visible to anyone paying attention but for those of us who have been on the inside, what he has done for The League is masterful.”  

Upon the conclusion of the event, guests were invited to tour the “This Light of Ours: Activist Photographers of the Civil Rights Movement” photography exhibition, which will be on view at the Skirball until Feb. 25.