The Los Angeles City Council Tuesday honored civil rights leader Rev. James Lawson, three days ahead of his 95th birthday, by declaring Sept. 22 as “Rev. James Lawson Jr. Day” annually in the city.
The council recently passed a resolution commemorating Lawson, and a celebration was held in Council Chambers during Tuesday’s meeting. Lawson did not attend the meeting.
Councilman Hugo Soto-Martinez, with colleagues Marqueece Harris-Dawson and Heather Hutt, led the presentation, with a special appearance from state Sen. Maria Elena Durazo.
“After the climax of the civil rights movement, Rev. Lawson actually came here to the city of Los Angeles (in 1974), and how fortuitous that he actually came to this city because so much was happening a decade after he was here,” Soto-Martinez said. “We had a lot of immigrants that were coming to the county, many of them who were undocumented.”
The councilman said Lawson played a vital role in the labor movement and helped organize immigrant workers.
Harris-Dawson, the council president pro tem, said Lawson could have “chosen anywhere in the world to live,” but chose L.A. and to “engage in the struggle of the city, and lead a movement.”
Harris-Dawson recounted the last time he saw Lawson, which was when Lawson, then 93, came to City Hall to picket and demand the city “do better than we have done.”
Hutt said it’s important to honor Lawson for being a “relentless advocate” who mentored some of the country’s most well-known leaders, such as the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Lawson also was a close colleague former Rep. John Lewis.
Durazo, who called Lawson a mentor, friend and inspiration for the past 25 years, recognized the reverend for his contributions to the labor movement.
“Reverend Lawson was recruited by Dr. King to teach the power of nonviolence as the only way to eliminate segregation,” Durazo said. “He taught us about the power of non-violence. Together, we transformed the lives of housekeepers, dishwashers and cooks, who had been invisible because they were women of color.”
She added, “His teachings remain relevant today as they have in the past.”
According to the council’s resolution, MLK described Lawson as the “architect of the civil rights movement.”
Lawson helped lead the historic 1960 Nashville sit-in at Woolworth’s lunch counter, the Freedom Rides in 1961, and throughout the 1960s continued to organize nearly every major student sit-in, march and protest.
“Rev. Lawson’s leadership throughout the decade was instrumental in the desegregation of the South, and his teaching on nonviolence practices and civil disobedience continue to inspire generations of civil rights leaders across the country,” the resolution reads.
In 1974, Lawson moved to L.A., where he served as pastor for the Holman United Methodist Church for 25 years. He worked with janitorial, hotel and restaurant workers to develop nonviolent tactics and supported the organizing of low-wage workers across the county.
Over the years, Lawson has spoken out against racism and violence, as well as in support of immigration rights, equal rights for the LGBTQ community, community diversity and solidarity.
Lawson taught “Nonviolence and Social Movements” at UCLA for more than 20 years, and established a strong relationship with Cal State Northridge through his involvement with the university’s Civil Discourse and Social Change Initiative.
The reverend received the UCLA Medal — the university’s highest honor — in 2018, and in 2019, was inducted into the California Hall of Fame based on the governor’s nomination.
In 2021, the UCLA James Lawson Jr. Worker Justice Center was dedicated as the permanent home for the UCLA Labor Center across from MacArthur Park.
“Rev. James Lawson Jr. Day” will acknowledge Lawson’s birthday and celebrate his “remarkable achievements to advance the philosophy of nonviolence, promote human dignity, and build a more just society,” the resolution states.
Hutt also introduced a motion to dedicate a section of Adams Boulevard from Crenshaw Boulevard to Arlington Avenue as “Reverend James Lawson Mile.” The motion will be considered at a future council meeting.