Lawson, James M., Jr.

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James M. Lawson, Jr.

Civil rights activist, minister

The Reverend James Morris Lawson Jr. made significant contributions to the modern civil rights movement in Tennessee and in the South. A leading proponent of the philosophy of direct nonviolent protest, he was the movement's leading theoretician and tactician in the black American struggle for freedom, justice, and equality. The product of a politically active family, he continued his family's heritage by using his intellect and talent for the betterment of humankind.

Reared in a household of ten children (nine biological and one adopted), James Morris Lawson Jr. was born in Uniontown, Pennsylvania on September 22, 1928 to the Reverend James Morris Sr. and Philane May Cover Law-son. His father was born in Guelph, Ontario. Lawson's paternal great-grandfather, an escaped slave from Maryland, made his way to Ontario via the Underground Railroad. The surname Lawson is the family name that his great-grandfather assumed to honor a man who worked on the secret escape route and aided the family in its flight from the South. Lawson's mother was born in St. Anne's Parish, Jamaica. During her late teens, she left Jamaica and migrated to the United States in search of better opportunities. Lawson's father came to America as an African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Zion minister. To Lawson Sr., religion and education were of prime importance. An itinerant minister, he was one of the first persons of African descent to graduate from Canada's McGill University. Imbued in the Wesleyan tradition, the Lawsons often traveled from place to place, setting up new congregations. In addition to being a man of the cloth, Lawson Sr. was an activist. Wherever he resided, he organized and established both a chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and the Urban League. As a gun-toting AME Zion minister, he advocated a gospel of liberation. A strong activist, he did not adhere to or believe in the tenet of nonviolence. He instructed his children to fend off any assault, be it physical or verbal. By contrast, Lawson's mother did not adhere to her husband's position. She believed that force never settled any problem.

A Youthful Social Activist

Lawson grew up in Massillon, Ohio, a predominately white town. He received his primary and secondary education in the Massillon public schools. While growing up, Lawson was exposed to the views of Mohandas K. Gandhi, who demonstrated the effectiveness of passive resistance for fighting injustice. This philosophy was discussed in editorials of the Cleveland Defender and the Pittsburgh Courier. Before graduating from high school, he and a schoolmate, provoked by the unjust treatment of African Americans, entered a Massillon eating establishment and insisted that they be served. Reluctantly serving Lawson and his friend, the eatery's management ordered them not to return. That was his first sit-in. The youthful Lawson continued his protest activity by testing white-only restaurants at different Methodist youth meetings in small Midwestern cities. From his protest encounters, he discerned that the region's mindset was not unlike that in the South.

In high school, Lawson proved himself scholarly, and his intellectual talent was not to be wasted. For the student scholar, college was a given. During his last two years in high school, Lawson leaned toward the ministry. Offered several scholarships after high school, he entered Baldwin-Wallace College in Berea, Ohio in 1947.

Becomes a Conscientious Objector

As a freshman at the Methodist liberal arts institution of higher education, Lawson felt his activism strengthen. He joined the local chapter of the Fellowship of Reconciliation (FOR) and also became a member of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE). Both organizations promoted nonviolent passive resistance to racism.

At Baldwin-Wallace, Lawson met A. J. Muste, the founder of FOR. The formidable pacifist became a significant person in Lawson's life. He introduced Lawson to the intellectual and historical basis for his beliefs. Additionally, because of Muste, Lawson encountered others of similar beliefs, including James Farmer, Bayard Rustin, and Glenn Smiley.

Within two years of entering Baldwin-Wallace, Lawson was firmly grounded in the principle of nonviolence and became a conscientious objector just as the United States began to engage in the cold war. Although he registered for the draft at age eighteen, Lawson indicated he did so with misgivings. He did not believe in the draft and as a Christian did not know if he could serve in the armed forces. In 1949, the draft board sent him a second classification form that he refused to complete.

Five months after the Korean War erupted in 1950, Lawson and his pacifist beliefs came under attack. Although he could have taken a student or ministerial deferment, Lawson remained steadfastly committed to his beliefs. Having been warned that there was a warrant for his arrest, he turned himself in to the authorities, who subsequently charged him with violating the country's draft laws. After posting bond, Lawson returned to Baldwin-Wallace and worked toward completing his academic program, as he expected to be a member of the 1951 graduating class.

Enters Federal Prison

FOR assigned an attorney to represent Lawson at his trial. A senior, he went to trial in April 1951. The judge sentenced him to three years in federal prison. On April 25, 1951, he entered prison at Mill Point, West Virginia.


Born in Uniontown, Pennsylvania on September 22
Enters Baldwin-Wallace College in Berea, Ohio
Refuses to be drafted into the Korean War
Convicted and sentenced to three years in prison for violating the draft laws; enters federal prison on April 25
Paroled from Ashland Federal Prison; graduates from Baldwin-Wallace College
Serves as a Methodist minister in India and teaches and serves as a coach at Hislop College in Nagpur
Returns to the United States; attends Oberlin College Graduate School of Theology
Moves to Nashville, Tennessee; transfers to Vanderbilt Divinity School from Oberlin College; serves as southern secretary for the Fellowship of Reconciliation for two years
Begins nonviolent action training workshops in Nashville; marries Dorothy Wood on July 3
Expelled from Vanderbilt University on March 3; gives the keynote address at the founding session of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee; receives master's degree in theology from Boston University; serves as director of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference
Participates in the final stage of the Freedom Rides
Appointed to the pastorate of the Centenary Methodist Church in Memphis, Tennessee
Invites Martin Luther King Jr. to come to Memphis to draw attention to the plight of the striking sanitation workers
Becomes board member of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference
Begins serving as pastor of Holman Methodist Church in Los Angeles, California, until 1999
Serves as president of the Fellowship of Reconciliation
Receives the Walter R. Murray Distinguished Alumnus Award; serves as visiting professor for UCLA's Labor Center
Receives the Ralph J. Bunche Trailblazer Award
Receives the 2005 Vanderbilt University's Distinguished Alumnus on January 18; appointed distinguished visiting professor for the 2006–2007 academic year

Lawson was not prepared for the Baldwin-Wallace faculty's action. Withholding his degree, they ruled that he would have to come back when he completed his sentence and retake his final course work. The consciousness objector served thirteen months in prison. However, before his early release, just before Christmas in 1951, officials moved Lawson from the West Virginia penal complex to a maximum-security institution in Ashland, Kentucky, under the trumped-up charge of being a troublemaker. Earlier in the month, President Harry S. Truman issued an order desegregating all federal prisons. That action caused a racial storm in the prison. Whites who wished to maintain the status quo identified Lawson as the leader of the would-be integrationists. In reality, Mill Point prison officials transferred Lawson and the five white inmates because of desegregation.

In May of 1952, Lawson was paroled from federal prison. He took the summer off and returned to Baldwin-Wallace in the fall to complete his undergraduate degree. Lawson earned his B.A. in 1952. Years later, however, as a prominent figure in the civil rights movement and one of the college's distinguished alumni, when the college asked him to return to receive an honorary degree, Lawson requested that his original undergraduate degree be listed with the class of 1951. Baldwin-Wallace's administrators honored his request and listed him with the class of 1951.

Studies Principles of Nonviolent Direct Resistance in India

Because of an opportunity provided by the Methodist Church, Lawson went to India to serve as a missionary in April 1953. Arriving in Nagpur, Lawson was assigned to Hislop College, a Presbyterian school in the British system. While in Nagpur, he continued to study satyagraha, the principles of nonviolent resistance. There until 1956, in addition to his teaching and coaching responsibilities, he continued his study of Gandhi and even visited with Prime Minister Nehru. Before returning to the states in the spring of 1956, Lawson traveled to parts of Africa, where he also discerned the growing intensity of anti-colonial feeling.

When he returned to the United States, Lawson entered Oberlin College's Graduate School of Theology in 1956. In February of the following year when Martin Luther King Jr. spoke on campus, they met and talked. During the course of their conversation, King praised Lawson's experience and understanding, and encouraged him to come to the South.

Becomes Involved in the Nashville Movement

A. J. Muste arranged for Lawson to become the organization's southern secretary. For two years, from 1958 to 1960, he served as a troubleshooter, moving in and out of southern cities such as Little Rock, Columbia, Jackson, Memphis, Knoxville, and Greensboro among others. Based in Nashville, Tennessee, he enrolled in Vanderbilt University's School of Divinity and became a member of the Nashville Christian Leadership Conference (NCLC), founded by the Reverend Kelly Miller Smith, a local affiliate of King's Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). As chair of the Action Committee, Lawson launched a process to demonstrate that the success of the Montgomery bus boycott could be repeated in Nashville. That fall, with Lawson serving as organizer and teacher, NCLC sponsored weekly nonviolent action workshops bringing together students, clergy, and laity. During the workshops Lawson met, mentored, and nurtured a cadre of students who became leaders within the movement across the South.

Soon after arriving in Nashville, Lawson met Dorothy Woods, a graduate of Tennessee A & I State University. In December 1958, Lawson asked Woods to be his wife. They married on July 3, 1959 and ultimately became the parents of three sons, John (who, as a toddler, desegregated the public parks in Memphis), Seth, and James Morris III.

In November and December 1959, the Reverends Lawson and Smith and students Diane Nash, Marion Berry, John Lewis, and James Bevel, conducted "test sit-ins" at downtown Nashville department stores, two months prior to the students in Greensboro, North Carolina. Approximately two weeks after the Greensboro sit-ins, on February 13, 1960, Lawson and other students began full-scale sit-ins at Nashville downtown stores. Because of its discipline, the Nashville student movement became the model for other movements across the South. However, Lawson's involvement with Nashville's desegregation movement brought him into direct conflict with Vanderbilt University board of trustees member James Geddes Stahlman, publisher of the Nashville Banner. On March 2, 1960, the Vanderbilt trustees met and gave Lawson the choice of withdrawing as a student or being dismissed from the university. He refused to withdraw and the following day, university's officials expelled him from Vanderbilt.

Between April 15 and 16, 1960, at Shaw University in Raleigh, North Carolina, Lawson and the Nashville student contingent were leading supporters in the establishment of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). The Nashville group's dedication to nonviolence and the Christian ideal of community helped determine SNCC's initial direction. SNCC's statement of purpose, written by Lawson and endorsed by a student conference held in Atlanta on May 13 and 14, 1961, emphasized the religious and philosophical tenets of nonviolent direct action.

After being expelled from Vanderbilt's School of Divinity, Lawson went on to Boston University and received his master's of theology in August 1960. In that same year, he served as the pastor of the Green Chapel Methodist Church in Shelbyville, Tennessee. A year later, when the Freedom Riders were going through the Deep South testing the region's compliance with the U. S. Supreme Court's edict in the Boynton v. Virginia case, Lawson participated in the rider's last journey. In 1962, officials of the Methodist Church appointed Lawson to the pastorate of the Centenary Methodist Church in Memphis, Tennessee. The following month, King asked Lawson to serve as director of nonviolent education for SCLC.

Brings Martin Luther King, Jr. to Memphis

Lawson supported a number of civil rights organizations, mostly conducting workshops. He worked with FOR from 1957 to 1969; SNCC from 1960 to 1964; and the SCLC from 1960 to 1967. After moving to Memphis, he participated in the Bluff City movement. Lawson pressed the NAACP to confront the city's governmental agencies. He organized Community on the Move for Equality (COME) and initiated action groups to address high poverty rates, inadequate healthcare facilities and services, indecent housing, and unequal education. Lawson persuaded local clergy to support the striking sanitation workers in their protest for better wages and improved working conditions. Lawson, who emboldened the refuse workers to think of themselves as men, led them to employ the well-known "I am a Man" signs. In 1968, COME spearheaded an economic boycott, and Lawson asked King to come to Memphis to draw attention to the plight of striking sanitation workers. Arriving on March 18 and moved by the crowd, King promised to return on March 22 and lead a march. Postponed because of inclement weather, King returned to Memphis on March 28. Because the march ended in violence, the civil rights leader returned to Memphis on April 2. The following day he gave his "I've Been to the Mountain Top" speech at Mason Temple, the last speech he made. The following day, King was murdered. After King's April 4 assassination, Lawson pleaded for calm in the black community.

Heads Holman United Methodist Church

Remaining in Memphis for six more years, Lawson continued to work with various civil rights groups. In 1972, he returned to Vanderbilt University on a one-year fellowship. The following year, he became a board member of the SCLC. In 1974, Lawson and his family moved to Los Angeles, California, when he was appointed pastor of the Holman United Methodist Church. Serving the Holman congregation for twenty-five years, he continued his application of the gospel for all human issues. In the 1980s, Lawson became a nonviolent consultant and conducted workshops for organizers and staff in civil disobedience and demonstrations. In the 1990s, he was one of the founders of Clergy and Laity United for Economic Justice (CLUE) in Los Angeles. Since its founding in 1996, he served on the special advisory committee of the National Interfaith Committee for Worker Justice. As chairman of CLUE, Lawson stood with workers and labor leaders in any number of efforts, including civil disobedience.

Retired in the early 2000s, Lawson, an unwavering activist, campaigned against violence, demonstrated for equal rights of gays and lesbians, and worked to promote community diversity and solidarity. As an activist, he saw the inside of jails and prisons in numerous states. As a pastor, he participated in a wide range of ministries on the local, national, and international levels.

Lawson was awarded Vanderbilt University's 2005 Distinguished Alumni Award. Within the same week, almost forty-six years after the university expelled him for his civil rights activism, Vanderbilt appointed him as its distinguished visiting professor for the 2006–2007 academic year.

Born just four months before Martin Luther King Jr., Lawson was the understated leader of the civil rights movement. His impact was enormous and long lasting. He became noted in the struggle for African American civil rights by teaching Gandhi's nonviolent civil disobedience techniques and philosophy, which became the movement's most compelling and effective political weapon.



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Burns, Stewart. To the Mountain Top: Martin Luther King Jr.'s Sacred Mission to Save American, 1955–1968. New York: Harper Collins, 2004.

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Halberstam, David. The Children. New York: Random House. 1998.

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Zinn, Howard. SNCC: The New Abolitionists. Cambridge, Mass.: South End Press, 2002.


"James Lawson Named 2005 Vanderbilt University Distinguished Alumnus." Tennessee Tribune, 22 December 2005.

Mielczarek, Natalia. "Vanderbilt Hires Ex-student It Expelled for Civil Rights Activism." Tennessean, 19 January 2006.

Summer, David E. "The Publisher and the Preacher: Racial Conflict at Vanderbilt University." Tennessee Historical Quarterly LVI (Spring 1997): 34-43.

Wynn, Linda T. "The Dawning of a New Day: The Nashville Sit-Ins, February 13, 1960–May 10, 1960." Tennessee Historical Quarterly L (Spring 1991): 42-54.


"Interview: Rev. James Lawson." A Force More Powerful: Nashville 1960. (Accessed 10 July 2005).

                                   Linda T. Wynn

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Lawson, James M., Jr.

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