Tribute to James Lawson

Contributed by Tina L. Ligon and Kaitlin Rogers from the National Archives at College Park, Maryland

“Through nonviolence, courage displaces fear, love transforms hate , acceptance dissipates prejudice, hope ends despair, peace dominates war, faith reconciles doubt, mutual regard cancels enmity, justice for all overthrows injustice.” ~James Lawson

On June 9, 2024, James M. Lawson passed away at the age of 95 in Los Angeles, California. He was a civil rights activist who provided guidance on, mentored, and lived by the principles of nonviolence. Although he was not as well known as the other civil rights leaders of the 1960s, Reverend Lawson played an influential role with organizing sit-ins, mentoring young activists, and advocating for peaceful resistance. He provided nonviolent strategies for the sit-in movements, Freedom Rides, Freedom Summer, Memphis Sanitation Strike, and several anti-war protests. Reverend Lawson has also served as pastor of the Holman United Methodist Church, taught at California State University, Northridge and the University of California, Los Angeles, as well as worked as labor movement organizer.

James Morris Lawson, Jr. was born on September 22, 1928, in Uniontown, Pennsylvania to Philane May Cover and James Morris Lawson, Sr. He was the son and grandson of ministers, who grew up in Massillon, Ohio, and became an ordained minister during his senior year of high school. Lawson studied sociology at Baldwin Wallace College where he became a pacifist. He was drafted to serve in the Korean War in 1950, but refused due to his religious beliefs. Lawson was sentenced to one year in a federal prison as a conscientious objector. Following his parole in 1951, the Fellowship of Reconciliation sponsored a trip to India for him to learn satyagraha, the practice of passive political resistance, from followers of Mahatma Gandhi.

Once Lawson returned from India, Martin Luther King, Jr. persuaded him to relocate to the South, where he enrolled in the divinity masters program at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee. He began leading workshops for local college students on the practices of nonviolent protest. Some of the participants in his training were Diane Nash, John Lewis, and Marion Barry, who all attended Fisk University. Lawson’s influence encouraged these students to engage in peaceful boycotts throughout the city and to take on leadership positions in the newly formed Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). Lawson continued his support for nonviolent peaceful protest during this era by co-authoring the statement of purpose for SNCC and helped to organize the 1968 sanitation workers strike in Memphis.

The National Archives holds some documents and moving images on Reverend James Lawson. Most of these file units and items relate to his passion toward nonviolent protest. RG 21 The United States of America vs. James Morris Lawson (NAID 280949914) is Lawson’s criminal case file where he failed to appear for induction into the Armed Forces due to his religious beliefs and devotion to nonviolence, and RG 517 Civil Rights (NAID 77169641) is a video recording with Lawson discussing the 1st Amendment and Civil Rights in the 1960s.

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