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There’s been a steady stream of tributes and an outpouring of condolences following the announcement Monday that the legendary Rev. James Lawson had died.

The iconic civil rights leader was 95 and left behind a rich, decades-long legacy of fighting for racial equality. Once Lawson’s death was reported, the groups and organizations that benefited the most from his hard work seemingly spoke the loudest while recalling the good and important work he did in his life.

Lawson is being remembered in part for being a pastor, labor movement organizer and university professor. But Lawson’s legend began when he was much younger as a college student at Vanderbilt University in Tennessee, where he led powerful movements on campus, in the city of Nashville and beyond during the peak of the Jim Crow era.

As a student at Vanderbilt, he led sit-ins to have lunch counters desegregated in Nashville which eventually led to him being expelled from the university. Decades later, he was awarded by the institution for his work, being recognized as a distinguished alumnus who now has a scholarship in his name at Vanderbilt.

The Associated Press has more:

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. Gandhi’s independence movement. King would travel to India himself two years later, but at the time, he had only read about Gandhi 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.

It was decidedly in that context that civil rights groups and leaders like the Rev. Al Sharpton tried to balance their sadness at Lawson’s passing with their gratitude for his lifelong contributions to the fight for racial equality.

“James Lawson was the ultimate preacher, prophet, and activist,” Sharpton said in a statement sent to NewsOne. “In his senior years, I was privileged to spend time with him at his church in Los Angeles. He would sit in his office and tell me inside stories of the battles of the 1950s and 1960s that he, Dr. King and others engaged in. Lawson helped to change this nation – thank God the nation never changed him.”

Independent presidential candidate Cornel West called Lawson “a moral giant and spiritual genius” who was “one of the greatest freedom fighters of our time! His courage and compassion was incredible! His prophetic witness shall forever burn in my heart!”

The Martin Luther King, Jr. Center remembered Lawson as “a leading nonviolent strategist whose insight was deeply valued by Dr. King.”

Tennessee State Rep. Justin Jones, one of the Black lawmakers who was expelled from the Tennessee legislature last year for leading an anti-gun protest on the House floor in the wake of a deadly elementary school shooting in Nashville, shared a photo of himself alongside Lawson and eulogized the icon as “a powerful life force and mentor to so many of us.”

Senator Reverend Raphael Warnock also sent prayers to Lawson’s loved ones, thanking him for his decades of mentorship.

“The Rev. James Lawson was a battle-tested soldier in the nonviolent army for truth, justice & equity,” Warnock wrote. “Working to redeem the soul of America, his decades of mentorship & thought leadership helped move our nation forward. Sending up my prayers for his family & all who loved him.”


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