Reverend James Lawson was born in Uniontown, Pennsylvania in 1928. The son of a minister, he grew up in Massillon, Ohio, and received his ministry license while still in high school. Following parole from prison in 1952 for refusing to register with the armed forces, he traveled to India for missionary work with the Methodist Church. There, he would become a practitioner of Gandhi's methods of nonviolent resistance to affect change.
He returned to the United States in 1956 to continue his studies, and he met Dr. Martin Luther King, who encouraged him to lend his nonviolent activism to the burgeoning civil rights movement in the south. His nonviolent workshops would empower prominent activists to conduct sit-ins and demonstrations for desegregation across the country—including the Freedom Rides, the March on Washington, Freedom Summer and others.
He was expelled from Vanderbilt University in 1960 for his involvement in the movement, but would be awarded a bachelor of sacred theology degree by Boston College that same year. He moved to Los Angeles in 1974 and served as pastor of Holman United Methodist Church until his retirement in 1999. He continued his activism in support of the labor movement, reproductive and LGTBQ+ rights, immigrants’ rights and more. In 2004, he received the Community of Christ International Peace Award. He has served as a visiting scholar at California State University Northridge since 2010. (Photo: Joon Powell; used with permission.)