Rev. William

Houston Civil Rights Legend William ‘Bill’ Lawson Dies At 95

Lawson was an instrumental figure in the desegregation of Houston.

William “Bill” Lawson, the founding pastor of Wheeler Avenue Baptist Church, and a fixture in the Houston Civil Rights community, died May 14. He was 95.

Lawson chartered the Houston chapter of Martin Luther King Jr.’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference. At a time when the perception of King was negative in Houston, and throughout the country, Lawson invited King to speak at his church. 

As the Houston Chronicle reports, Lawson was an instrumental figure in the desegregation of Houston. The city’s escape from violence and destruction, a rite of passage for many cities during the turbulent 1960s, has been credited to Dawson’s leadership

The late Joseph Fiorenza, a former Catholic Archbishop Emeritus of Galveston-Houston, and a good friend of Lawson, told the Chronicle a few years before his death in 2022 that Lawson “…did more than anyone, probably, to keep Houston calm during the civil rights era.” Lawson, Fiorenza added, “convinced the city’s business community that tumult was ‘not good for Houston.’ And we were able to do a lot of things to quietly integrate the public facilities here.”

“The quiet desegregation of Houston met more my style than the picketing or protesting—that was not my style,” Lawson told the Houston Oral Project in 2008.

In an interview with ABC13, Lawson also credited his wife, Audrey, for inspiring him to get involved in the Civil Rights Movement. She told him that Lawson could not “have a church with just preaching and signing.” Instead, his church “was going to be both religion and social movement.” 

According to Texas Monthly, although Lawson was hesitant to get his students at Texas Southern University involved in the historic sit-ins at a Weingarten lunch counter, he did not try to stop them once they informed him of their intentions. After he and his wife worked to bail the students out of jail, he was “sort of snatched into the Civil Rights Movement.” 

Charlotte Bryant, one of the original 13 members of Wheeler Avenue Baptist Church, told the Chronicle that Lawson was “a quiet storm.”

In a statement, Houston Mayor John Whitmire said Lawson “is one of the reasons why our city is so great. He helped us during the period of civil rights and social justice. Houston benefited from his leadership, his character.”

Lawson is survived by his three daughters: Melanie, a longtime anchor at ABC13, Cheryl, and Roxanne; two granddaughters; and two great-grandsons.

Services for Lawson have been planned for May 23 and 24, beginning with his funeral at Wheeler Avenue Baptist Church at 9 a.m., followed by a Community Service of Celebration at 6 p.m., and concluding with a Congregational Service of Celebration on May 24 at 11 a.m.