Born in Uniontown, Pennsylvania, he grew up in Massillon, Ohio. While a freshman at Baldwin Wallace College in Brea, Ohio, he joined the Fellowship of Reconciliation, an organization founded by A.J. Muste, and the Congress of Racial Equality, an organization affiliated with FOR that conducted sit-ins in some northern cities in the late 1940s and embarked on a freedom ride more than a decade before the more famous ones of the early 1960s. Both FOR and CORE advocated nonviolent resistance to racism and other evils as an aspect of Christianity.
Lawson stood by those principles of nonviolence in 1951, when he declared himself a conscientious objector and refused to report for the draft. He served thirteen months in prison for his stance after refusing to take either a student or ministerial deferment.
Lawson went as a Methodist missionary to Nagpur, India, where he studied satyagraha, the principles of nonviolence resistance that Mohandas Gandhi and his followers had developed. He returned to the United States in 1955, where he entered the Graduate School of Theology at Oberlin College in Ohio. One of his professors introduced him over dinner to Martin Luther King, Jr, who had led the Montgomery Bus Boycott in Montgomery, Alabama and had also embraced Gandhi’s principles of nonviolent resistance. King urged Lawson to come South, telling him “Come now. We don’t have anyone like you down there.”
Lawson moved to Nashville, Tennessee, where he served as the southern director for FOR and began conducting nonviolence training workshops for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. There he met a number of young students at Vanderbilt University and other schools in Nashville, among them Diane Neal, Charles Bevels, and John Lewis, who were interested in the tactics of nonviolent direct action that Lawson was teaching.
As John Lewis later wrote, “Jim Lawson knew, though we had no idea when we began, that we were being trained for a war, unlike any this nation had seen up to that time. A nonviolent struggle that would force this country to face its conscience. Lawson was arming us, preparing us, and planting in us a sense of both rightness and righteousness.” Lawson stressed the need to embrace the Christian command to not only turn the other cheek, but not to descend into hating the person who was abusing you.
That, of course, took great discipline. It also required that activists master not only their anger, but their fear, since any challenge to the racist mores of the South carried with it a high risk to their personal safety.
The activists trained by Lawson launched a series of sit-ins to challenge segregation in Nashville’s downtown stores in 1960. These activists, and others from Greensboro, North Carolina and elsewhere in the South joined to form the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (or “SNCC'”) in October of 1960. SNCC played a leading role in the Freedom Rides, the 1963 March on Washington, Mississippi Freedom Summer and the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party over the next few years.
Lawson became pastor of Centenary Methodist Church in Memphis, Tennessee in 1962. He continued as both a civil rights and religious leader in the much more hostile environment there. In 1968, when black sanitation workers went on strike for higher wages and union recognition after one of their co-workers was accidentally crushed to death, Reverend Lawson served as chairman of their strike committee. Reverend Lawson invited Dr. King to Memphis in April 1968 to dramatize their struggle, which had adopted the slogan “I am a Man.”
Dr. King delivered his famous “Mountaintop” speech in Memphis on April 3, 1968. The following day he was assassinated. Despite the great loss, the workers continued their strike, which they won a week later.
Reverend Lawson moved to Los Angeles in 1974 to lead Holman United Methodist Church. He has continued to train activists in nonviolence and to lead coalition work in support of peace and human rights and in opposition to racism and political and economic oppression, both in the United States and abroad. Among his current work is support of immigrants’ rights in the United States, opposing the war in Iraq and working for workers' rights to a living wage.