The Rev. James Lawson Jr., one of the civil rights movement’s most prominent leaders, a lifelong proponent and teacher of nonviolent activism, and a UCLA labor studies faculty member for nearly 25 years, died June 9. He was 95.

Referred to by his close friend the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. as “the mind of the movement” for civil rights and “the leading strategist of nonviolence in the world,” Lawson was known internationally for teaching nonviolent resistance tactics to thousands of young activists.

During the civil rights era of the 1960s, Lawson and his colleagues and students led crucial desegregation efforts, including lunch counter sit-ins and Freedom Rides, and worker justice struggles like the historic 1968 Memphis sanitation strike.

After moving to Los Angeles in 1974 to become pastor of Holman United Methodist Church, Lawson’s transformed the region’s labor movement through his leadership and teaching, influencing a new generation of social justice activists and inspiring UCLA students, faculty and staff through his work with the university’s Labor Center, Institute for Research on Labor and Employment, and labor studies academic program.

“Rev. Lawson was an extraordinary, visionary leader who introduced the philosophy of nonviolence to a new generation of Los Angeles labor and civil rights leaders,” Kent Wong, former director of the UCLA Labor Center and a project director for labor and community partnerships at the center said in a statement. “Our deepest condolences go out to his family. Let us all continue to carry on his memory and legacy.”

Lawson was awarded the UCLA Medal, the campus’s highest honor, in 2018. In 2021, the UCLA Labor Center’s historic MacArthur Park building was officially named the UCLA James Lawson Jr. Worker Justice Center in recognition of Lawson’s decades-long commitment to the labor movement in Los Angeles.

James Lawson speaking at podium with hands raised and UCLA Medal around his neck.
Reed Hutchinson/UCLA
James Lawson speaks after receiving the UCLA Medal in 2018.

A lifelong commitment to nonviolent activism

A third-generation Methodist minister, Lawson was born in 1928 in Uniontown, Pennsylvania, and earned his pastor’s license in 1947, during his senior year of high school. Not long after graduating, he was drafted into the U.S. military at the time of the Korean War but refused to enlist. As a conscientious objector, he received a three-year sentence and served 13 months in prison.

Following his release, Lawson traveled to India as a missionary, where he studied the nonviolence teachings of Mohandas Gandhi. Upon returning to the U.S. in 1956, Lawson began to train and inspire a large and budding group of civil rights leaders that included the late U.S. Rep. John Lewis, and spearheaded dozens of nonviolent campaigns for desegregation throughout the South.

At Holman United Methodist Church in South Los Angeles, from the mid-1970s on, Lawson led his congregation to mobilize for peace and social justice and began teaching nonviolent tactics to a network of young leaders in the Los Angeles labor rights movement — later dubbed the “Holman Group” — that included current California state Sen. María Elena Durazo, current Mayor Karen Bass and UCLA’s Wong, then a staff attorney for the Service Employees International Union.

“The Holman Group represented a continuation of Rev. Lawson’s work to teach and mentor others — a process that began decades before in the South,” Wong said.

James Lawson in front of UCLA MacArthur Park building named in his honor
Reed Hutchinson/UCLA
Lawson stands in front of UCLA’s Worker Justice Building in MacArthur Park, renamed in his honor in 2021.

Lawson’s guidance was pivotal in helping Los Angeles’ hotel workers’ union, led at the time by Durazo, achieve higher wages and improved working conditions by orchestrating nonviolent sit-ins, hunger strikes and civil disobedience protests. Soon after, Los Angeles labor organizers embraced similar tactics, which inspired a national movement for immigrant worker justice. Lawson was also instrumental in Los Angeles’ Justice for Janitors campaign, the fight to organize home care workers and security officers, and similar campaigns.

“He rekindled our movement through his teachings,” said Durazo, who as a state senator led the effort to allocate $15 million to renovate and name UCLA’s Labor Center building in Lawson’s honor. “James Lawson was not just a civil rights leader but a beacon of hope, a champion of justice and an unwavering advocate for equality.”

California state Sen. Lola Smallwood-Cuevas relied on Lawson’s guidance as young union organizer during the campaign for security guards. Smallwood-Cuevas, who would go on to become a project director at the UCLA Labor Center in 2004 and launch the groundbreaking Los Angeles Black Worker Center, said she was a recipient of Lawson’s “grand legacy.”

“Mentor. Advisor. Confidant. Teacher. Pastor. Soul force. That is what Rev. Lawson meant to me, and his enormity of spirit will be so deeply missed in a world rife with turmoil for which Reverend Lawson had solutions,” she said. “It is painful to lose a divine problem-solver. But his powerful legacy lights the way for change in all of us.”

Inspiring the next generation of leaders at UCLA

In the 1990s, Kent Wong joined the UCLA Labor Center as its director and invited Lawson to join the center’s mission to advance worker justice.

For more than 20 years, Lawson and Wong co-taught a nonviolence and social movements class with Wong titled “Nonviolence and Social Movements” as part of UCLA’s labor studies program. Each spring, the class — offered jointly with UCLA’s African American studies department and the department of Chicana/o and Central American Studies — drew over 300 students.

Rev. James Lawson teaching from podium with students in foreground
Lawson teaching his “Nonviolence and Social Movements” course at UCLA.

Students examined nonviolent theory and its impact on social movements in the United States and around the globe, applying these concepts to present-day social challenges through service-learning activities and efforts to achieve justice on campus and in the community.

“It’s been very important to me that I’ve been teaching … at UCLA and that the opportunity has given me a chance to talk with a wide range of students. The emergence of nonviolence as a science of social change could be the most important paradigm called for” in the future, he said.

Wong, who would co-author two books with Lawson — “Nonviolence and Social Movements: The Teachings of Rev. James Lawson Jr.” (2016) and “Revolutionary Nonviolence: Organizing for Freedom” (2022) — witnessed the transformation of students inspired by Lawson’s teachings and principles of justice and determination.

“Rev. Lawson’s unwavering commitment to the fight for economic, social and racial justice,” Wong said, “was always matched by his work to develop new generations of young people to embark on a journey to advance social change.”

Abel Valenzuela, dean of the UCLA Division of Social Sciences and former director Institute for Research on Labor and Employment, considered working with Lawson, and his efforts with Wong to have the Labor Center building named in his honor, among the highlights of his career.

“Reverend Lawson has left an indelible imprint on our campus. His legacy reminds us of the power of the social sciences to strive for equity and excellence at all levels of society,” he said.

Of his teaching, Lawson once said, “We share a common commitment to getting the nonviolent history and theory into the public coffers where social change, personal change and the change towards equality can be made directly.”

Into his later years, Lawson continued to teach and advise and was a strong advocate for undocumented students, speaking at the UCLA Labor Center’s Dream Summer program, supporting the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals order, or DACA, signed by President Obama in 2012, and joining undocumented students and their allies at UCLA this past May on the anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education — and urging UC leadership to remove hiring restrictions for students who don’t have access to DACA or other forms immigration status.

Ju Hong, who now leads the UCLA Labor Center’s Dream Resource Center recalled the influence Lawson had on undocumented students.

“I remember his teachings on the power of organizing and advocacy and nonviolent direct actions,” she said. “He also shared the importance of considering humanity as a guiding principle. He remarked that the immigrant youth movement reflected the spirit of the civil rights movement.”

Rev. James Lawson and UCLA's Kent Wong embrace at the UCLA Medal Ceremony
Reed Hutchinson/UCLA
UCLA’s Kent Wong and Lawson embrace at the UCLA Medal ceremony honoring Lawson in 2018.

As the UCLA Labor Center prepares for its 60th anniversary later this year, it will redouble its commitment to advance social and economic recovery grounded in Lawson’s values, said current director Saba Waheed.

“Rev. Lawson will always be in the narrative of the Labor Center, and we will keep moving forward with the values and vision that he has rooted in us, our building, and our work in research justice and building the next generation of leaders,” she said. “He will be missed — while his work, teaching and soul force — will continue.”

Lawson himself continuously expressed his belief that humanity has the capacity to overcome its ever-present challenges. “If we can tap the great forces of life itself and use those powers in the solving of the issues we face,” he said, “we will discover the power of life itself in the power of the universe.”