Next week on Thursday, June 30, the Los Angeles Urban League will host the 47th Annual Whitney M. Young Jr. Awards Dinner at the Beverly Hilton Hotel. This year’s honoree is one of the civil rights movement’s leading activists and strategists who worked directly with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. to train students and volunteers in nonviolent action. Civil rights leader and late Georgia congressman John Lewis called him the architect of the Civil Rights Movement for his nonviolent teachings, and strategic development of campaigns that would eventually bring down unjust systems and structures. This year we are humbled and proud to honor the tireless and unwavering pastor, educator, mentor, and civil rights icon, Reverend James M. Lawson.

Born in 1928 in Uniontown, Pennsylvania, Lawson would go on to graduate from Baldwin-Wallace College and later Boston University where he earned his Bachelor of Sacred Theology. In 1951 Lawson was jailed for resisting the draft and refusing to register with the armed forces. After serving 13 months of a three year sentence the United Methodist Church persuaded a federal judge to release him to pursue mission work in India. As a student of nonviolent action before departing for India, Lawson deepened his knowledge of nonviolence while teaching at Hislop College in Nagpur. Lawson saw similarities in India’s treatment of the so-called ‘untouchables,’ and the struggles of African Americans in the United States.

After three years in India Lawson would return to the U.S. and continue his studies at Oberlin College in Ohio. It was here where Lawson would meet Dr. King. They were both twenty-eight years of age. Upon hearing about Lawson’s knowledge of nonviolent action as an approach to fighting for justice Dr. King called upon Lawson to move south exclaiming, “Don’t wait! Come now! You’re badly needed. We don’t have anyone like you!”

After transferring to Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee, Rev. Lawson began organizing workshops on nonviolence for community members at Vanderbilt and its four black colleges. By 1959 Lawson was running weekly workshops introducing local clergy and student leaders to the theories and strategies of nonviolent action that would become the blueprint for protests and sit-ins throughout the Southern United States.

In an effort to organize and coordinate the various sit-in campaigns, Lawson and student leaders created the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). Along with helping to found SNCC, Rev. Lawson continued to advise Dr. King and teach nonviolence at the Southern Christian Leadership Conference events.

Today Rev. Lawson continues to educate and inspire generations in Dr. King’s honor. He is a sought-after speaker and advisor in our movement for racial equality and economic empowerment. This is why we honor Rev. James Lawson’s legacy and celebrate his life and everlasting contributions. There is no one more deserving of the Whitney M. Young, Jr. Award than Rev. Lawson. We thank him for his continued service and commitment to the Los Angeles Urban League and our mission.

The Whitney M. Young, Jr., Awards Dinner raises funds for the Los Angeles Urban League and its programs focusing on workforce development, youth education, entrepreneurship, and advocacy. The black-tie gala’s past honorees include a list of “Who’s Who in Los Angeles.” Sports legends such as the late John Wooden and Earvin “Magic” Johnson, as well as entertainers such as Denzel Washington, the late Natalie Cole, Sidney Poitier, and Stevie Wonder were past honorees. The list of past honorees also included business and community leaders from organizations such as Toyota, Disney, NBC Universal, and West Angeles Church of God in Christ, Los Angeles Police Department, and Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund.

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