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The Rev. James Lawson Jr. has died at 95, civil rights leader's family says

Rev. James Lawson speaks on the balcony outside Room 306 at the National Civil Rights Museum, formerly the Lorraine Motel, on the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., Wednesday, April 4, 2018. (Mark Humphrey/AP Photo) Rev. James Lawson speaks on the balcony outside Room 306 at the National Civil Rights Museum, formerly the Lorraine Motel, on the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., Wednesday, April 4, 2018. (Mark Humphrey/AP Photo)
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MEMPHIS, Tenn. -

The Rev. James Lawson Jr., an apostle of nonviolent protest who schooled activists to withstand brutal reactions from white authorities as the civil rights movement gained traction, has died, his family said Monday. He was 95.

His family said Monday that Lawson died on Sunday in Los Angeles, where he spent decades working as a pastor, labour movement organizer and university professor.

Lawson was a close adviser to the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., who called him “the leading theorist and strategist of nonviolence in the world.”

Lawson met King in 1957, after spending three years in India soaking up knowledge about Mohandas K. Ghandi’s independence movement. King would travel to India himself two years later, but at the time, he had only read about Ghandi in books.

The two Black pastors -- both 28 years old -- quickly bonded over their enthusiasm for the Indian leader’s ideas, and King urged Lawson to put them into action in the American South.

Lawson soon led workshops in church basements in Nashville, Tennessee, that prepared John Lewis, Diane Nash, Bernard Lafayette, Marion Barry, the Freedom Riders and many others to peacefully withstand vicious responses to their challenges of racist laws and policies.

Lawson’s lessons led Nashville to become the first major city in the South to desegregate its downtown, on May 10, 1960, after hundreds of well-organized students staged lunch-counter sit-ins and boycotts of discriminatory businesses.

Lawson’s particular contribution was to introduce Ghandian principles to people more familiar with biblical teachings, showing how direct action could expose the immorality and fragility of racist white power structures.

Ghandi said “that we persons have the power to resist the racism in our own lives and souls,” Lawson told the AP. “We have the power to make choices and to say no to that wrong. That’s also Jesus.”

Years later, in 1968, it was Lawson who organized the sanitation workers strike that fatefully drew King to Memphis. Lawson said he was at first paralyzed and forever saddened by King’s assassination.

“I thought I would not live beyond 40, myself,” Lawson said. “The imminence of death was a part of the discipline we lived with, but no one as much as King.”

Still, Lawson made it his life’s mission to preach the power of nonviolent direct action.

“I’m still anxious and frustrated,” Lawson said as he marked the 50th anniversary of King’s death with a march in Memphis. “The task is unfinished.”

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