James Lawson, American civil rights leader who advocated nonviolence, dies at age 95 |  WSAU News/Talk 550 AM · 99.9 FM
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James Lawson, American civil rights leader who advocated nonviolence, dies at age 95 | WSAU News/Talk 550 AM · 99.9 FM

By Jasper Ward

(Reuters) – James Lawson, a prominent civil rights activist whose advocacy of peaceful protests influenced Martin Luther King Jr. and helped shape the 1960s movement to outlaw discrimination in the U.S., died Sunday at age 95, his family said.

According to the Washington Post, which cites his son, Lawson, whom King once described as “the world’s leading theorist and strategist of nonviolence,” died of cardiac arrest on the way to a hospital in Los Angeles.

Lawson’s family confirmed his death via email.

In 1952, as a young Methodist minister, Lawson traveled to India, where he was influenced by the work of Mahatma Gandhi, an anti-colonial activist who advocated nonviolent resistance to British rule in India.

When Lawson returned to the United States, he became a leading advocate of nonviolent protest as a strategy for the emerging American civil rights movement.

In 1960, Lawson led a series of lunch meetings in Nashville, Tennessee, and was expelled from Vanderbilt University for his involvement.

Lawson later mentored the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, composed primarily of black students participating in peaceful protests for racial integration.

He participated in the Freedom Rides, a series of anti-segregation protests in which blacks and whites rode buses together through the South in the 1960s.

Lawson also played a key role in the sanitation workers’ strike in Memphis, Tennessee. It was at Lawson’s request that King came to Memphis, where he was assassinated in 1968.

The work of civil rights leaders like Lawson resulted in the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, or national origin.

“As a member of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, Reverend Lawson was a voice of confidence that we could lean on in times of confusion and strife,” U.S. Rep. James Clyburn said in a post on X.

Lawson was born in 1928 and received degrees from Baldwin-Wallace College in Ohio and Boston University. He was imprisoned for 13 months after refusing to enlist after being drafted into the US Army.

He later served as pastor at Holman United Methodist Church in Los Angeles from 1974 to 1999.

Lawson was among seven civil rights leaders honored by Time magazine ahead of the inauguration of Barack Obama, the first black US president.

(Reporting by Jasper Ward; Editing by Frank McGurty and Bill Berkrot)