In December, the UCLA Labor Center’s historic MacArthur Park building was officially named the UCLA James Lawson Jr. Worker Justice Center in honor of one of the civil rights movement’s most-prominent leaders of non-violent protest and a UCLA labor studies faculty member.  

Once referred to as “the mind of the movement” and “the leading strategist of nonviolence in the world” by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Lawson, now 93, is known internationally for teaching nonviolent resistance tactics to young activists. In the course of his life, Lawson and his colleagues and students led lunch counter sit-ins, freedom rides and worker strikes including the historic 1968 Memphis Sanitation Strike during the civil rights movement.

Lawson, pastor emeritus at Holman United Methodist Church, said he was humbled by UCLA naming a building in his honor.

“I had no idea how to prepare for this moment. For this extraordinary experience of all of you and the coalition that came together, to make this possible,” Lawson said. “On behalf of my wife, Dorothy, and her parents, and my parents and our great grandparents, and all on behalf of our sons, our grandchildren … we thank you very much, absolutely astonishing — I could never have imagined anything like this at all.”

Guests at the dedication included members of Lawson’s family, many friends and a host of legislators.

“On behalf of this City of Angels, thank you to this angel,” Garcetti said. “Whether it’s in a sermon at Holman [United Methodist Church] or whether it’s in a private small conversation that I’ve had with [Rev. Lawson] at UCLA — and thank you to UCLA, Chancellor Block for having this center here — this man has shown us what it means to live in a city of angels in a world fighting for justice and in a city of belonging.”

A third generation Methodist minister, Lawson was born in Uniontown, Pa., and earned his local pastor’s license in 1949 during his senior year of high school. Shortly after graduating, he was drafted into the U.S. military but refused to enlist. As a conscientious objector, Lawson received a three-year sentence, and served 13 months in prison.

Following release from prison, Lawson traveled to India as a missionary where he studied the nonviolence teachings of Mohandas Gandhi. Upon returning to the United States in 1956, Lawson began to train and inspire a new generation of civil rights leaders including the late U.S. Rep. John Lewis.

In 1974, Lawson moved to Los Angeles and became pastor of Holman United Methodist Church. His local work with the UNITE HERE Local 11 helped hotel workers achieve higher wages and improved working conditions by orchestrating nonviolent sit-ins, hunger strikes and civil disobedience protests. 

In his address, Lawson recognized the unprecedented challenges facing the nation and how this moment would serve as a reminder of the urgent need to achieve economic dignity for all.

“Economic justice for every boy and girl of our 331 million people in the United States is perhaps the most daunting, complex issue we face,” he said. “But if we do not achieve it, if we cannot achieve it, we as the people, will have failed this extraordinary vision and mission that I personally have loved.”

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