Rev. James Lawson Jr,

Rev. James Lawson Jr, Advisor To MLK, Dies At 95

Lawson was able to connect the principles of Gandhi to Biblical principles, which he was able to use to show the fragility and immorality undergirding the white supremacist power structures upholding the system of Jim Crow

Rev. James Lawson, a teacher of nonviolent resistance methods and an advisor to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr, died at the age of 95, his family confirmed on June 10. According to the family, Lawson had been ill and died on June 9 in Los Angeles, where he worked for decades as a pastor, labor organizer, and university professor. 

As NBC News reported, Lawson and King met in 1957 after Lawson was in India for three years, learning about the methods of Mohandas K. Gandhi. King, at the time they met, had not yet engaged with Gandhi’s work. The two men, both 28 years of age, quickly bonded over their enthusiasm for the Indian leader’s work. 

After their meeting, King urged Lawson to utilize the nonviolent methods in the South, where Jim Crow ruled, and Lawson would soon lead workshops in church basements in Nashville, Tennessee, that prepared future leaders like John Lewis, Diane Nash, Marion Berry, and the participants of the Freedom Rides among others, to withstand indignities that would be hurled at them by opponents of integration. 

Lawson was able to connect the principles of Gandhi to Biblical principles, which he used to show the fragility and immorality underpinning the white supremacist power structures upholding the system of Jim Crow. As NBC News reported, Lawson told the Associated Press, Gandhi’s teachings taught him that “we persons have the power to resist the racism in our own lives and souls. We have the power to make choices and to say no to that wrong. That’s also Jesus.”

Tragically, Lawson organized the sanitation strike in 1968 in Memphis, where Dr. King was assassinated by James Earl Ray. Lawson later said in an interview that the murder of King both paralyzed and saddened him. “I thought I would not live beyond 40, myself. The imminence of death was a part of the discipline we lived with, but no one as much as King.” Lawson also declared during a march honoring the 50th anniversary of King’s death that the job he and King helped begin was not yet complete. “I’m still anxious and frustrated,” Lawson said. “The task is unfinished.”

Lawson’s lifelong commitment to nonviolence ironically began as the result of a moment in his childhood when he lashed out in anger at a white classmate who called him a racist slur. His mother asked him a simple question, which altered the trajectory of his philosophy. According to NBC News, Lawson told The Tennessean that his mother asked him, “What good did that do, Jimmy?”

That question would eventually spur Lawson to become a conscientious objector to the unpopular war preceding the Vietnam War and the Korean War. As a result, Lawson, similar to Muhammad Ali during the Vietnam War, would spend a year behind bars rather than serve as a soldier. Lawson’s lessons in nonviolence led to the removal of “No Colored” signs at movie theaters and lunch counters in Nashville. 

Lawson would remain an active organizer well into his 90s, and as he eulogized John Lewis in 2023, he urged those who heard his voice to commit to dismantling the wrongs in American society wherever they are found. “If we would honor and celebrate John Lewis’ life, let us then re-commit our souls, our hearts, our minds, our bodies, and our strength to the continuing journey to dismantle the wrong in our midst.”

RELATED CONTENT: ‘The Mountaintop’ Stage Play Returns to Imagine MLK’s Last Night Alive At The Lorraine Motel