Civil Rights Icon Dead at 95

( – Martin Luther King Jr. and the individuals who worked with him in the fight for civil rights believed nonviolence was the only way to win. Rev. James M. Lawson Jr. was one of the architects of the movement. Sadly, he has now passed away.

On June 9, Lawson died from cardiac arrest while on his way to a hospital in Los Angeles, California. Ironically, his death occurred the night before the 60th anniversary of the filibuster being broken for the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Lawson was a United Methodist minister who traveled to India to study the principles of civil disobedience practiced by Mohandas K. Gandhi. During the Korean War, he refused to register for the draft and spent 13 months in prison. In 1957, he graduated from Oberlin College in Ohio. While at the school, he heard King speak. The civil rights legend shared the same belief in nonviolence that Gandhi taught and told Lawson that he should get involved in the movement to end segregation in the South.

According to author David Halberstam, King told Lawson, “Don’t wait! Come now! We don’t have anyone like you down there.”

Lawson took the advice and began hosting workshops for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) while attending Vanderbilt University’s divinity school in Tennessee. The majority-white university expelled him for his participation in the civil rights movement. He went on to play a critical role in the desegregation of Nashville, one of the first major cities in the South to do so.

Lawson recruited John Lewis to participate in the sit-ins in Nashville before the city desegregated. Lewis later served 17 terms in the US House of Representatives for Georgia. Lawson and Lewis were among those who were beaten on “Bloody Sunday,” in March 1965. Law enforcement attacked voting rights activists as they crossed the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama. The event is seen by historians as the turning point in the movement.

In 1968, Lawson lived in Memphis. He was leading a church in the city when the sanitation workers went on strike, and he asked King to come lead the protests. King agreed, but on April 4, he was assassinated outside of his Memphis hotel room.

In 1974, Lawson left the South and moved to LA. He became the senior pastor at Holman United Methodist Church and remained there until his retirement in 1999. He continued his work advocating for civil rights until his death.

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