Penn State, Eberly Foundation to fund tribute to civil rights icon James Lawson

A sculpture at Penn State Fayette will recognize Lawson’s legacy to the region, the country and the world
Rev. James Lawson speaks in Nashville, Tennessee.

The Rev. James Lawson Jr., who was born in Uniontown, Pennsylvania, speaks in Nashville, Tennessee.

Credit: Used with permission: Joon Powell

LEMONT FURNACE, Pa. — The Eberly Foundation has committed funds to commission a sculpture of the Rev. James Lawson Jr., renowned tactician of nonviolence within the civil rights movement, to be installed at Penn State Fayette, The Eberly Campus.

University and campus sources have matched the Eberly Foundation’s contribution to the commission of a figurative sculpture of Lawson to be displayed at the campus. An artist proposal has been selected with commemoration details to follow.

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 U.S. 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 Martin Luther King Jr., 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.

Lawson 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, Lawson received the Community of Christ International Peace Award. He has served as a visiting scholar at California State University Northridge since 2010.

“Penn State Fayette is grateful to the Eberly Foundation for their commitment and support in bringing this tribute to the Fayette campus and to Penn State,” said Charles Patrick, chancellor and chief academic officer. “It is a true privilege to partner with the Eberly Foundation to honor the legacy of the civil rights icon Rev. James Lawson. For the campus and region, this legacy tribute is an opportunity to share a vision of peaceful activism and to incorporate Rev. Lawson’s story into the academic and cocurricular elements of the campus and community.”

The Eberly Foundation has supported higher education with scholarships, endowments and charitable giving at 28 colleges and universities, beginning with Penn State Fayette in 1965, which was named The Eberly Campus in 2004 to honor the family’s legacy of philanthropic support to Penn State and the region.

“We at the Eberly Foundation are honored and excited to support the project to pay tribute to Rev. Lawson, a pioneer of the civil rights era in the United States,” said Eberly Foundation President Robert E. Eberly Jr.

He added, “A colleague of Dr. Martin Luther King, Rev. Lawson was instrumental in advancing the cause of equality for all during one of the defining moments of our nation's history. It is particularly fitting that Penn State Fayette, The Eberly Campus, leads the effort to recognize this esteemed Uniontown native and to acknowledge the magnitude of his achievements. The citizens of Uniontown, Fayette County, Pennsylvania —  and, indeed, the entire country — are indebted to him for the freedoms that all Americans enjoy today.”

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