Rev. James Lawson addresses a news conference outside the L.A. Sentinel office in August 2005 to protest the beating of Minister Tony Muhammad by the LAPD. (Malcolm Ali)

Tributes continued this week for the Rev. James Lawson Jr., an icon of the Civil Rights Movement and the longtime pastor of Holman United Methodist Church in South Los Angeles, with President Joe Biden saying on June 11 that Lawson dedicated his life to “our country’s ideals.” 

Lawson died June 9 in Los Angeles after a brief illness at age 95. 

“Jill and I are saddened by the loss of one of our nation’s noblest leaders,” Biden said in a statement.  

“His passing before Juneteenth is a reminder that our nation’s journey from slavery to freedom started in the hearts of people like James Lawson spellbound by freedom. We send our condolences to the Lawson family as our nation mourns a man who helped redeem the soul of our nation,” said Biden. 

“As a mentor, he taught the likes of Diane Nash, Congressman John Lewis, and countless others about the tactics and promise of nonviolence resistance,” the president said.  

“And as a minister, he preached about how the fight for equality, dignity, and justice for all was a divine calling.”  

Mayor Karen Bass issued a statement on June 10 calling Lawson “a civil rights leader whose critical leadership, teachings, and mentorship confronted and crippled centuries of systemic oppression, racism and injustice.” 

Bass said that when Community Coalition first started, Lawson “was gracious enough to meet with young people we were working with in South Los Angeles and teach them about the civil rights movement while training them in non-violent protest strategies.”  

“Reverend Lawson was also an invaluable mentor to me,” Bass said. “I continued seeking his counsel throughout my time as an organizer, an activist and as an elected official. He was there for me as I know he was there for countless civic and faith leaders here in Los Angeles who were guided and influenced by his teachings.” 

L.A. County Supervisor Holly J. Mitchell noted, “As a child growing up at Holman United Methodist Church, I was captivated by the resonance of Reverand Lawson’s voice.  As an adult, I read his teachings, participated in his non-violence training sessions, and traveled to the home and final resting place of Gandhi.   

“I grew to both understand and embrace his concept of the evils of ‘plantation Capitalism’ and have worked to manifest his vision of love over violence in my everyday life.  He was both a civil rights icon, mentor, and friend.  In his name, we will continue to fight for justice, peace, and love for ALL.” 

Los Angeles City Councilwoman Heather Hutt, who led a street- dedication ceremony for Lawson in January outside Holman UMC, said in a statement: “Reverend James Morris Lawson was a leader of our community and world, whose messages of love and nonviolence left an indelible mark on the Civil Rights Movement and influenced many.  

“I am deeply saddened to hear of his passing, but know his legacy will continue to guide us for generations to come. His message of love will forever live on in every heart he touched. May he rest in power.” 

Superior Court Judge Rupert Byrdsong proclaimed, “The world has lost one of her greatest heroes with the passing of Rev. James M Lawson. His passion for the protection of civil rights through nonviolent civil disobedience transformed this nation.” 

Assemblyman Mike Gipson, D-Carson, noted, “Yet as sad as I feel to lose an icon, I am in awe of such an accomplished life.  

“It leaves a legacy including the nonviolence work of the James Lawson Institute, an immense body of writings published during his time in California, and the many ways that our community champions the cause of others’ freedom to this day. May he rest in peace.” 

Assemblymember Reggie Jones-Sawyer shared, “Reverend Lawson was a dear friend of my grandfather, Ellis Thomas, Sr., and a mentor to my uncle, Jefferson Thomas, during the Little Rock Nine ordeal.  His words of wisdom sustained me and guided me through my entire political career.  We will all miss him.” 

Lawson was pastor of Holman United Methodist Church from 1974 until his retirement in 1999. Born James Morris Lawson Jr. Sept. 22, 1928, in Uniontown, Pennsylvania, the son and grandson of Methodist ministers, Lawson was raised in Massillon, Ohio. 

While a student at Baldwin-Wallace College in Berea, Ohio, Lawson was drafted by the U.S. Army, but refused to serve due to his belief in nonviolence and was sentenced to two years in prison. 

Released after 13 months, Lawson returned to college to finish his education, then traveled to Nagpur, India as a Methodist missionary to study the nonviolence resistance tactics developed by Mahatma Gandhi. 

Lawson returned to the United States in 1956, entering the Graduate School of Theology at Oberlin College in Ohio. According to a biography from the Stanford University-based Martin Luther King, Jr. Research & Education Institute, one of Lawson’s Oberlin professors introduced him to King, who had also embraced Gandhi’s principles of nonviolent resistance. 

In 1957, King urged Lawson to move to the South telling him, “Come now. We don’t have anyone like you down there.” He moved to Nashville, Tennessee where he attended Vanderbilt University and began teaching nonviolent protest techniques. 

In February 1960, following lunch counter sit-ins initiated by students at a Woolworth’s store in Greensboro, North Carolina, Lawson and several local activists launched a similar protest in Nashville’s downtown stores. More than 150 students were arrested before city leaders agreed to desegregate some lunch counters. 

Lawson was expelled from Vanderbilt in March 1960 because of his involvement with Nashville’s desegregation movement. Lawson eventually reconciled with Vanderbilt and returned to teach as a distinguished university professor. Vanderbilt established a institute for the research and study of nonviolent movements bearing his name in 2021. 

Lawson participated in the 1961 Freedom Rides which challenged segregation on interstate buses and bus terminals. 

Lawson became pastor of Centenary Methodist Church in Memphis, Tennessee in 1962. In 1968, when Black sanitation workers in Memphis began a strike for higher wages and union recognition after two of their co-workers were accidentally crushed to death, Lawson served as chairman of their strike committee. 

Lawson and King led a march in support of the strikers on March 28, 1968, which erupted in violence and was immediately called off. 

In what would be his final speech on April 3, 1968, one day before his assassination, King spoke of Lawson as one of the “noble men” who had influenced the Black freedom struggle. 

“He’s been going to jail for struggling; he’s been kicked out of Vanderbilt University for this struggling; but he’s still going on, fighting for the rights of his people,” King said. 

City News Service contributed to this article.