Jun 10, 2024 - News

Rev. James Lawson, teacher of the Civil Rights Movement, dead at 95

In this screengrab, James Lawson accepts the Chairman's Award during the 52nd NAACP Image Awards on March 27, 2021.

The Rev. James Lawson in 2021. Photo: NAACP via Getty Images

The Rev. James Lawson, a civil rights giant whose workshops teaching nonviolent resistance powered influential protests that reshaped the Jim Crow South, has died at 95.

The big picture: Lawson studied Gandhi's strategy of nonviolence in India and brought those lessons to Nashville. In the late 1950s, he began teaching the approach to local college students, conducting mock protests and testing their dedication to nonviolence.

  • He became an inspiration to generations of icons who defined the Civil Rights Movement, including Diane Nash and the late Rep. John Lewis.

The latest: Lawson's family confirmed he died Sunday in Los Angeles after a brief illness, according to The Associated Press.

Zoom in: The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. met Lawson in 1957 and encouraged him to apply his expertise in the South.

  • Soon afterward, Lawson transferred from Oberlin College in Ohio to study at Vanderbilt University. He began his workshops with students from Fisk University, American Baptist College and Tennessee State University, which was known then as Tennessee A&I.

State of play: The Nashville students applied Lawson's lessons in sit-ins at segregated downtown lunch counters. Protesters faced violence, insults and arrest, but they remained nonviolent.

  • The protests forced a reckoning, and Nashville became the first Southern city to desegregate its downtown lunch counters in 1960.

Zoom out: Lawson and his students fanned out across the South, using the same strategies in the Freedom Rides and other demonstrations.

Vanderbilt expelled Lawson in 1960 due to his leadership role in the sit-ins. Lawson later reconciled with Vanderbilt, and the university created an institute in his honor.

  • The city of Nashville has sought to recognize Lawson and other activists in recent years. The city's newest high school bears his name.

Flashback: In 2021, when the city celebrated the dedication of Rep. John Lewis Way, Lawson spoke at the Ryman, where he reflected on the movement's legacy and the way forward.

  • "The big task in the 21st century is that we move to let love be the power in which we organize every facet of society. ... I happen to think that that can be done," Lawson said.
  • "Hatred can be replaced with love, and violence can be replaced with ... truth, with beauty, with the spirit."
  • "Nashville for me is a wonderful illustration of where this happened before and must continue to happen."

Nashville responds to Lawson's death

"We cannot talk about civil rights in America or Nashville without Rev. James Lawson," Metro Councilmember Zulfat Suara tells Axios. "It was Lawson that used his ministry and experience studying abroad in India to train young activists like John Lewis and Diane Nash in nonviolent resistance."

  • "It was Lawson who formed the strategy for the sit-ins here in Nashville. And it was Lawson who helped guide the development of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee in 1960."
  • "He was a living testament of the struggle for African-Americans in this country and a reminder of all the work, still to be done."

Editor's note: This story has been updated with additional details.

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