Civil rights icon and advocate of nonviolence, Pastor James Lawson, has died
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Civil rights icon and advocate of nonviolence, Pastor James Lawson, has died

LOS ANGELES, Calif. — Funeral services were scheduled to be held Monday for the Rev. James Lawson Jr., an icon of the Civil Rights Movement and longtime pastor of Holman United Methodist Church in South Los Angeles.

The Los Angeles Sentinel, which first reported the news, reported that Lawson died Monday morning of a cardiac arrest. His family told the Associated Press that he died Sunday in Los Angeles after a short illness. Lawson was 95 years old.

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Los Angeles City Councilwoman Heather Hutt, who led a street dedication ceremony for Lawson outside Holman UMC in January, confirmed the death, telling City News Service in a statement: “The Reverend James Morris Lawson was a leader in our community and world whose message of love and nonviolence he left behind made an indelible mark on the Civil Rights Movement and influenced many people. It is with deep sadness that I hear the news of his death, but I know that his legacy will continue to guide us for generations to come. His message of love will remain forever alive in every heart he touched. May he rest in power.”

Assemblyman Mike Gipson, D-Carson, said in a statement that he was saddened by the death of a “legend of the Civil Rights Movement.”

“While I feel saddened by the loss of an icon, I am in awe of such a fulfilled life,” Gipson said. “He leaves a legacy including the work of the James Lawson Institute for Nonviolence, the vast body of writings published during his time in California, and the many ways our community continues to support the cause of freedom for others today. Rest in peace .”

Author and talk show host Tavis Smiley said that “we have lost a giant.”

“The best teacher and practitioner of civil disobedience and non-violent resistance,” Smiley wrote on social media. “His message resonates at a time like this, when there is violence at home and abroad. His sobering voice will be greatly missed.”

Lawson was the pastor of Holman United Methodist Church from 1974 until his retirement in 1999. A mile-long stretch of Adams Boulevard from Crenshaw Boulevard to Arlington Avenue in front of the church was named the Rev. James Lawson Mile in January.

Born James Morris Lawson Jr. September 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 into 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 complete his education, then traveled to Nagpur, India, as a Methodist missionary to study Mahatma Gandhi’s tactics of nonviolent resistance.

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

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

In February 1960, after a student-initiated lunch sit-in at a Woolworth’s store in Greensboro, North Carolina, Lawson and several local activists began a similar protest at stores in downtown Nashville. More than 150 students were arrested before city officials agreed to desegregate some cafeterias.

Lawson was expelled from Vanderbilt in March 1960 because of his involvement in the desegregation movement in Nashville. Lawson eventually reconciled with Vanderbilt and returned to teaching as a distinguished university professor. In 2021, Vanderbilt established an institute for peace movement research and studies bearing his name.

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

Lawson became pastor of Centennial United Methodist Church in Memphis, Tennessee in 1962. In 1968, when black sanitation workers in Memphis went on strike for higher wages and union recognition after two of their co-workers were accidentally crushed to death, Lawson was 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 canceled.

In his final speech on April 3, 1968, the day before his assassination, King described Lawson as one of the “noble men” who influenced the black freedom struggle.

“He went to jail for fighting; he was kicked out of Vanderbilt University for these fights, but he continues to fight for the rights of his people,” King said.

City information service