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Rev. James Lawson, giant of the Civil Rights Movement, dies at 95

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Rev. James Lawson, giant of the Civil Rights Movement, dies at 95

Jun 10, 2024 | 3:18 pm ET
By J. Holly McCall
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Rev. James Lawson, giant of the Civil Rights Movement, dies at 95.
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A pensive Rev. James Lawson at Vanderbilt University in May 2022. (Photo: John Partipilo)

(This story has been updated with additional details.)

Rev. James Lawson, a leader of the Civil Rights Movement who trained scores of activists during his time in Nashville — many of whom went on to prominence — died Sunday at the age of 95 of cardiac arrest.

Lawson, an Ohio native, studied the nonviolent resistance techniques championed by Indian lawyer and anti-colonial activist Mahatma Gandhi while serving as a Methodist missionary in India. Upon his return in 1956, he began studying theology at Oberlin College, where he was introduced to Martin Luther King, Jr.

King urged Lawson to move south and by 1958, Lawson was a student at the Vanderbilt University Divinity School while also serving as the southern director for the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) and conducting workshops in nonviolence techniques for students from Tennessee State University, Fisk University and Vanderbilt. Among the students he tutored were John Lewis, who went on to chair the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and later to serve in Congress; Diane Nash, Bernard Lafayette and Marion Barry.

Lawson was expelled from Vanderbilt for his protest activities at the urging of Nashville Banner Publisher James Stahlman, who sat on the university’s board of trustees.

Lawson helped develop strategy for the Freedom Rides, the 1961 campaign to desegregate interstate bus travel and was serving as minister of Centenary Methodist Church in 1968 during a sanitation workers strike. At Lawson’s request, King came to Memphis, where he delivered his famous “Mountaintop” speech and was later assassinated.

He moved to Los Angeles and in his later life, Lawson continued to serve as a minister and leader for civil rights, becoming active in the labor movement.

Yvonne Wheeler, president of the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor, AFL-CIO, said in a statement, “Rev. Lawson’s life and teachings have left an indelible mark on Los Angeles, leaving a legacy of hope and resilience to his family, students, congregation, and our labor movement.”

With his support, Vanderbilt created in 2022 the James Lawson Institute for the Research and Study of Nonviolent Movements at Vanderbilt University, which is housed in the College of Arts and Sciences and Divinity School.

“Reverend Lawson was an American hero. Without his spiritual guidance, moral example and deep understanding of the principles and practices of non-violent protest, the civil rights movement as we know it might not have existed,” said Vanderbilt Chancellor Daniel Diermeier. “For most of his life, he was a passionate advocate for justice and a more perfect union. He entreated us to engage with one another with love, not hate.”

“And in a time of deep polarization, he showed us how to cherish our common humanity. The courage he demonstrated, and the grace he showed to Vanderbilt and others, show us the way forward still.” 

In a statement, House Minority Leader Karen Camper of Memphis said, “For me, it’s hard to think of someone who played a larger role in the civil rights struggle across the state. . . Rev. Lawson’s life is essentially intertwined in some of the most important moments in Tennessee history and his level of commitment never wavered over his lifetime.”

He is survived by his wife, Dorothy Wood Lawson, two sons, a brother and three grandchildren. His son, C. Seth Lawson, died in 2019.

This story will be updated as more details become available.