Mentoring Civil Rights Leaders

James Lawson was born in 1928 in Uniontown, PA as the sixth out of nine children. Both his father and his grandfather were ministers and James became a licensed minister while still in high school. When he was in college, he was drafted into the military but refused to serve. He was sentenced to jail and returned to college when he was released from prison.

When he graduated, he served as a missionary in India where he studied nonviolent resistance developed by Mohandas Gandhi. When he returned to the U.S., he continued his theological studies. This was when he met Martin Luther King. King urged him to move to the south.

James relocated to Nashville where he attended Vanderbilt University. While in Nashville, he trained a number of future leaders in the Civil Rights movement. When James was arrested for sit-ins at lunch counters, he was expelled from Vanderbilt. It took Vanderbilt over 40 years to admit it made a mistake.

James’ students went on to become pivotal figures in all of the major Civil Rights events of the 60s and 70s. When black sanitation workers in Memphis were crushed to death in a garbage truck when they were refused seating in the cab during a horrendous storm, James became a chairman of a strike committee. Martin Luther King came to speak on behalf of the sanitation workers. He was killed after giving his famous mountaintop speech.

James has continued to advocate for human rights, including those of LBGTQ, immigrants, workers, and Palestinians. While James is well-known by those in the Civil Rights community, he is a hidden figure for most Americans.

Since hidden heroes become the teachers and mentors for those who become much more visible. James played a critical role in the Civil Rights movement as a developer of those who would become leaders in the fight for equality.

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“Our chief want in life is somebody who will make us do what we can.”– Ralph Waldo Emerson

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