James Lawson, Elder Statesman of Civil Rights Movement, is 2015 Commencement Speaker

Leading Theorist and Strategist of Nonviolence to Address Students at 189th Commencement

HARTFORD, CT, May 7, 2015 – Civil rights leader the Reverend James Morris Lawson, Jr., will be the featured speaker at Trinity College’s 189th Commencement on Sunday, May 17.

Renowned as one of the most important advocates for nonviolence in American history, Lawson was described by the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., as the “leading theorist and strategist of nonviolence in the world.” TIME magazine identified Lawson as one of seven icons of the civil rights movement.

The Reverend James Morris Lawson, Jr., with the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr.

Lawson’s contributions over seven decades as a preacher, nonviolent strategist, teacher, and activist are far-reaching and, at age 86, he continues to travel the country from his home in Los Angeles to champion social justice and nonviolence.

Born in 1928 in Pennsylvania and raised in Ohio, Lawson is the son and grandson of Methodist ministers and received his own preacher’s license in 1949. While attending Baldwin-Wallace College, a Methodist college in Ohio, he joined the Fellowship of Reconciliation, America’s oldest interfaith peace organization, and continued his study of the nonviolent teachings of Mahatma Gandhi.

A draft resister before the Korean War, Lawson was sentenced to three years in prison for refusing to serve. Paroled after 13 months, he resumed his studies and graduated from Baldwin-Wallace in 1952. He spent the next three years in Nagpur, India, where he served as a coach and campus minister at Hislop College and continued to study the principles of nonviolent resistance.

 Upon his return to the United States, Lawson enrolled at the Oberlin School of Theology in Ohio. In February of 1957, he shook hands for the first time with King, who urged Lawson to move south to teach the principles of nonviolence. Lawson answered King’s call, not only changing his own life but helping to change race relations in America.

The Reverend James Morris Lawson, Jr.

Lawson dropped out of Oberlin and moved to Nashville, traveling around the South in crisis situations as field secretary for the Fellowship of Reconciliation, including counseling the Little Rock Nine. He was the architect of a plan to desegregate downtown Nashville, leading workshops to prepare participants for the nonviolent campaign.

During his time in Nashville, Lawson was instrumental in founding the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. He wrote its statement of purpose and delivered the keynote speech at the organization’s founding meeting in April 1960. At the same time, Lawson was pursuing a master’s degree in divinity at Vanderbilt University. As a result of his leadership of workshops on nonviolent strategy, he was expelled from Vanderbilt Divinity School, later completing his degree at Boston University.

During the 1960s, Lawson was a mentor to King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference and a volunteer for campaigns in cities across the South. In 1968, while serving as pastor of Centenary Methodist Church in Memphis, he was chair of a strategy committee for 1,300 sanitation workers who went on strike in a successful campaign to address their grievances, which included dangerous working conditions, inadequate pay, and racial discrimination.

In 1974, Lawson moved to Los Angeles to lead Holman United Methodist Church, serving as pastor until his retirement in 1999. During the last 15 years, Lawson has continued to work for justice and civil rights for all people and has served as a visiting lecturer at several institutions, including Harvard Divinity School and UCLA. In 2006-2007, Vanderbilt University invited Lawson back to serve as a distinguished visiting professor and established the James M. Lawson Jr. Chair to build upon his legacy of nonviolent activism and leadership. Lawson is a founder of the Clergy and Laity United for Economic Justice and Interfaith Communities for Justice and Peace, and he has served as a consultant for Soulforce, a group that works to end oppression of LGBTQI people.