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James Lawson Jr. Dead - Profile of civil rights leader Reverend James Lawson. The L.A. minister was a confidant of Martin Lu

Source: Anne Cusack / Getty

The Rev. James Lawson Jr. has died. A Civil Rights activist, Rev. Lawson spent his life practicing and leading others in nonviolent protests against white supremacist ideologies and laws.

He died Sunday in Los Angeles following a short illness, his family said Monday. He was 95.

Lawson was born in 1928 into a family of ministers. He grew up in Massillon, Ohio, where he became an ordained minister himself during his senior year of high school.

His commitment to nonviolence began in elementary school after he slapped a boy who called him a racial slur. When he confided in his mother, she asked him, “What good did that do, Jimmy?”

Rev. Lawson said that simple question changed his life. A pacifist was born after that day. He ended up spending a year behind bars after refusing to serve when drafted for the Korean War. The Fellowship of Reconciliation, a pacifist group, sponsored a trip to India after he earned a sociology degree.

While in India, Rev. Lawson immersed himself into the teachings of Mohandas Gandhi. He saw how the Christian concept of turning the other cheek could help challenge white power structures. 

He and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. shared an interest in Gandhi’s philosophies. Rev. Lawson met Dr. King in 1957 as a divinity student at Oberlin College in Ohio. King urged him to head to the south and join the growing Civil Rights Movement.

He led workshops in church basements in Nashville to prepare activists such as John Lewis, Diane Nash, Marion Barry, and the Freedom Riders to withstand vicious responses to their peaceful protests. This led Nashville to become the first major city in the South to desegregate its downtown area.

“His passing constitutes a very great loss,” said Diane Nash, who was a 21-year-old college student when she began attending Rev. Lawson’s workshops. “He bears, I think, more responsibility than any other single person for the civil rights movement of Blacks being nonviolent in this country.”

Rev. Lawson stayed active into his 90s. He encouraged younger generations to harness the power within.

Civil Rights leader, Rev. Al Sharpton called him “the ultimate preacher, prophet and activist.”

“Lawson helped to change this nation — thank God the nation never changed him,” Sharpton said to the Associated Press.

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Civil Rights Activist Rev. James Lawson Jr. Dead at 95  was originally published on elev8.com