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Remembering the Civil Rights Legacy of the Rev. William Lawson

Jessica Johnson on

Longtime Houston civil rights activist Rev. William "Bill" Lawson passed away this month at the age of 95. He was a close colleague of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and worked with him in establishing Houston's office of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. As a stalwart in the generation of civil rights leaders with King, Lawson fought to end racial segregation and pushed for economic stability and opportunity, using the gospel of Christ as the foundation of his spiritual vision in the social justice struggle. Much of his diligent labor in his community resulted from 42 years of pastoring Wheeler Avenue Baptist Church, which he founded in 1962 in Houston's Third Ward. The ministries that were birthed from Lawson and his late wife Audrey shepherding this congregation continue to serve the city's youth, senior citizens and those striving to overcome poverty and mental health issues.

I found one of Rev. Lawson's February 2012 Bible study teachings titled "God's Hand in Our History" on YouTube, and one of the first things that I thought about before listening was how it is always emphasized in ministry that one never actually retires from his or her divine calling. Although we do use the term "officially retired" when a pastor steps down to hand over the mantle of leadership, our "work in the vineyard," as we often say in church, continues. Before he began his teaching, Lawson used a little humor by saying that "the pastor asked for it so I'm doing it," referring to the Rev. Dr. Marcus D. Cosby, who succeeded Lawson at Wheeler in 2004. The congregation laughed, but I'm sure they felt blessed to see Lawson demonstrate humbleness in service during this time when he was in his early 80s.

Speaking on a Black history theme, Lawson divided his lesson into three major sections: The Time of the Hebrew Patriarchs, Period of the Patriarchs, and The Civil Rights Movement. Like many preachers that I heard growing up, Lawson drew parallels between God's deliverance of the Hebrew slaves out of Egypt to His sovereign orchestration of freedom for Blacks in bondage in America. He transitioned from the patriarchs to 1946 when Heman Marion Sweatt, a Black man who earned his degree from Wiley College and had done post-graduate work at the University of Michigan, applied to law school at the University of Texas. Lawson explained how Texas politicians established the Texas College for Negroes, now Texas Southern University, to deliberately deny Sweatt's application. Sweatt sued the University of Texas and was represented by Thurgood Marshall and the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, winning his case in a June 5, 1950, Supreme Court ruling.

Lawson beautifully connected how the founding of the Texas College for Negroes opened a door for him to become the school's chaplain and director for its Baptist Student Union. This opportunity brought his family to Houston on Aug. 28, 1955, and Lawson recalled another reason he would not forget this specific date is that the brutal lynching of Emmett Till near Money, Mississippi, also occurred on this day. As the civil rights movement was beginning to shake up the nation, Lawson would take a bold leap of faith seven years later to become a young pastor. His growth in ministry over the Wheeler Avenue membership enabled him to leave an indelible legacy through decades of painstaking work in social activism.

 

In thinking about the sacrifices and spiritual guidance that Lawson and his generation provided during and after the civil rights movement, it is my hope that we do not lose the Christ-centered leadership they exemplified. I've always believed that Lawson, King and other prominent civil rights icons displayed how to truly lean on their trust in God to love their enemies in the midst of virulent racial hatred and bigotry. They were not blinded by the veil of bias in the Jim Crow era they lived in and refused to harbor prejudice in their hearts as they led the way for change in our country. We need to continue following their examples of temperance, patience, godliness, brotherly kindness and charity.

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Dr. Jessica A. Johnson is a lecturer in the English department at Ohio State University's Lima campus. Email her at smojc.jj@gmail.com. Follow her on X: @JjSmojc. To find out more about Jessica Johnson and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.


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