Reverend James Lawson was born in Uniontown, Pennsylvania on September 22nd, 1928. He became a follower of nonviolence when he was a child after his mother told him that there must be a better way than violence to respond to oppression and injustice. In 1947, in his first year of college, he joined the Fellowship of Reconciliation and started reading Gandhi’s autobiography. It was then that he recognized that his journey was a soul force journey, and that he would be engaged with struggles for justice and to end racism and all its manifestations. Soon after, he sent back his draft card in defiance of the Selective Service Act, which he saw as an unjust law, much like Jim Crow. He served time in jail during the Korean War as a draft resister.
Between 1953 and 1956, Reverend Lawson lived as a Methodist Minister in Nagpur, India. While there, he continued his study of Gandhian Satyagraha, or truth force, and met India’s first Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru.
Reverend Lawson met Dr. Martin Luther King on February 4th, 1957, just after the Montgomery Bus Boycott. At the time, Reverend Lawson was studying theology at Oberlin College in Ohio, but Dr. King urged him to come South immediately to help in the development of the movement.
Reverend Lawson moved to Nashville, where he was embraced by the local branch of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. During the first few months of his time in Nashville, Reverend Lawson travelled to Mississippi, Texas, Virginia, South Carolina, Arkansas, and other states, working with students and adults, including the Little Rock 9, and counseling them on nonviolent struggles.
In 1959, the campaign with the Nashville Christian Leadership Conference decided that they would engage in nonviolent direct action to desegregate downtown Nashville, influenced heavily by the women in the workshops who suffered the indignities of shopping under Jim Crow. Reverend Lawson held workshops to recruit and train students, clergy, and lay people for this campaign. These workshops produced for the next decade many of the field people for SCLC, SNCC, CORE, and the Freedom Summer campaigns. In early March 1960, Reverend Lawson was expelled from Vanderbilt University for his participation in the Nashville Nonviolent Direct Action Campaign. Lawson would go on to help strategize for and participate in the 1961 Freedom Rides to integrate interstate busing. In 1962, Reverend Lawson moved to Memphis, Tennessee to become pastor of Centenary Methodist Church where he organized his congregation for justice, including for the first free legal clinic in Tennessee in the South. In 1968, Reverend Lawson, acting as the voice of striking black sanitation workers, asked Martin Luther King to come to Tennessee. There, Dr. King delivered the famous “Mountaintop” speech, the last speech he would ever give before he was assassinated.
We honor Reverend Lawson for showing us what it means to be a lifelong Fighter for Peace and Freedom for humanity. Reverend Lawson has continued to take a principled stance against the violence of Western civilization at home and abroad, and to educate the American people about how the struggle for peace around the world is intimately connected to the struggle for economic and human rights within the United States. We honor Reverend Lawson for showing past and present generations a practice of nonviolent struggle to transform ourselves into people capable of building a world founded on truth and life.