Massillon native The Rev. James Lawson stood among national leaders such as former Presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush on Thursday to eulogize the late civil rights leader U.S. Rep. John Lewis.
Lawson and Lewis were young contemporaries during the civil rights movement in the 1960s, meeting when Lewis took Lawson’s classes on nonviolent confrontation and civil disobedience.
"John saw the malignancy of racism in Troy, Alabama," Lawson said in his 20-minute speech at the Ebeneezer Baptist Church in Atlanta. "There formed in him a sensibility that he had to do something about it. He did not know what that was but he was convinced that he was called, indeed, to do whatever he could do."
Lawson said he felt the same calling while growing up in Massillon.
"I maintain that many of us had no choice primarily because at an early age, we recognized the wrong under which we were forced to live and we swore to God, that by God’s grace we would do whatever God called us to do in order to put on the table of the nation’s agenda - this must end," he said. "Black lives matter."
To honor Lewis, the nation must work to make sure that "every baby born on these shores will have access to the tree of life," he said.
He decried an economy shaped by "plantation capitalism that continues to cause domination and control rather than access and liberty and equality for all." He also cited racism, sexism and violence as problems.
"Those poisons still dominate far too many of us in many different ways," Lawson said. "John’s life was a singular journey from birth through the campaigns in the South through Congress to get us to see that these forces of wickedness must be resisted. Do not let our hearts drink any of that poison."
At the and of his eulogy, Lawson recited the poem, "I Dream A World," written by another Ohioan, the late Langston Hughes of Cleveland.
Lawson is a second-generation minister. As a child, his father pastored St. James AME Zion Church in Massillon.
The younger Lawson served for a time as a missionary in India.
Lewis, Lawson, and the late Charles McDew, another Massillonian, were co-founders and leaders of SNCC, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, and coordinated the Freedom Riders.
McDew died in 2018.
In April 1968, Lawson invited the Rev. Martin Luther King. Jr. to speak in Memphis, Tenn., in support of striking Black sanitation workers.
Lawson was expelled from Vanderbilt Divinity School in 1960 for organizing lunch counter sit-ins in Nashville, which was segregated. He rejected a later offer to complete his degree, transferring instead to Boston University.
In 1996, Lawson was given the Vanderbilt Divinity School’s first Distinguished Alumni Award. He was named a Vanderbilt University Distinguished Alumnus in 2005.
Lawson returned to Vanderbilt in 2006 as a distinguished university professor. In 2007, the James M. Lawson Jr. Chair at Vanderbilt was established in his honor.
In 2018, Vanderbilt named a scholarship for undergraduates in Lawson’s honor.