By Kent Wong
Director, UCLA Labor Center
Rev. James Lawson Jr., a nationally known and celebrated leader of the civil rights movement, turned ninety years old on September 22.
The UCLA community has been very fortunate to have Rev. Lawson as part of our teaching faculty for the past sixteen years. His course, Nonviolence and Social Movements, is always popular with students. In 2016, the UCLA Labor Center published a book on his life and work, Nonviolence and Social Movements: The Teachings of Rev. James M. Lawson Jr.
Rev. Lawson was a close friend and colleague of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s, and Rev. Lawson’s work in the civil rights movement is well documented. He was a leading force in the Nashville sit-in movement, in the Memphis Sanitation Workers’ Strike, and in introducing the philosophy of nonviolence to a new generation of civil rights leaders. However, his role in advancing social justice movements in Los Angeles is less well known.
After moving from Tennessee to Los Angeles in the 1970s, Rev. Lawson served as pastor of the Holman United Methodist Church for twenty-five years. He was also a founder of Clergy and Laity United for Economic Justice (CLUE), which brings together clergy and lay leaders of all faiths with laborers, immigrants, and low-income families in the cause of a just economy. Through CLUE, Rev. Lawson influenced a new generation of religious leaders who actively participate in Los Angeles’s social and economic justice movements.
For many years, Rev. Lawson also led an emerging group of social justice leaders, known simply as the Holman Group, which included María Elena Durazo, Gilbert Cedillo, Antonio Villaraigosa, and Karen Bass, long before any of them were elected to public office. The Holman Group introduced these and many other social justice leaders to the philosophy of nonviolence and social change. To this day, Rev. Lawson continues to convene nonviolence workshops with labor and community practitioners. He has worked with hotel workers, janitors, and home care workers to advance nonviolent, direct-action campaigns that helped transform the Los Angeles labor movement.
This year marks not only Rev. Lawson’s ninetieth birthday but also the fiftieth anniversary of the Memphis Sanitation Workers Strike, where Dr. King was assassinated after Rev. Lawson called upon him to come support the workers.
To celebrate Rev. Lawson’s enduring contributions, the UCLA Labor Center and the UCLA Institute for Research on Labor and Employment will launch the UCLA Lawson Legacy Project this November, when Rev. Lawson receives the UCLA Medal, the university’s highest honor. The UCLA Lawson Legacy Project will establish an annual Lawson Lecture on Nonviolence beginning in 2019 and an annual scholarship to a deserving UCLA student engaged in the theory and practice of nonviolence. More details about the UCLA Legacy Project will be released at irle.ucla.edu soon.
Kent Wong is the director of the UCLA Labor Center, where he teaches courses in labor studies and Asian American studies. He previously served as staff attorney for the Service Employees International Union. He was the founding president of the Asian Pacific American Labor Alliance, the founding president of the United Association for Labor Education, and currently is vice president of the California Federation of Teachers.