Rev. William Lawson, civil rights leader who worked with Martin Luther King Jr., dies at 95

HOUSTON — The Rev. William “Bill” Lawson, a longtime pastor and civil rights leader who helped desegregate Houston and worked with the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. during the civil rights movement, has died. He was 95.

Lawson’s longtime church, Wheeler Avenue Baptist Church in that Texas city, announced on its website that he had died on Tuesday.

“He has completed his time of service here on earth and is now enjoying eternal rest,” the church said in its announcement.

Lawson founded Wheeler Avenue Baptist Church in 1962 and served as its pastor for 42 years before retiring in 2004. He was known as “Houston’s Pastor” and remained active in his church and the community after retirement.

He worked with King during the civil rights movement by setting up the local office of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, the civil rights organization that was led by King.

During an interview in 2021 with his daughter Melanie Lawson, an anchor with KTRK in Houston, William Lawson recalled how he offered to play host to King at his church when others would not after the FBI wrongly accused King of being a communist.

“I told his staff I don’t have a big church. But he’s perfectly welcomed to come to my church and he came to Wheeler Avenue Baptist Church and he preached there,” Lawson said.

Both men remained close friends until King’s assassination in 1968.

Community leaders in Houston praised Lawson and his legacy on Tuesday.

“He is one of the reasons why our city is so great. He helped us during the period of civil rights and social justice,” Mayor John Whitmire said. “Houston benefited from his leadership, his character.”

Harris County Commissioner Rodney Ellis said although Houston mourns his loss, “we celebrate a legacy that will guide us for generations to come.”

Memorial services celebrating Lawson’s life were set to be held at Wheeler Avenue Baptist Church on May 23 and May 24.


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