Houston civil rights icon a longtime friend to Baylor
In his hometown of Houston, Rev. Bill Lawson is known as a legendary civil rights leader. He marched with Dr. Martin Luther King in the 1960s, and he has been a tireless advocate for the underserved for more than six decades. And for just as long, he has been a friend to Baylor University.
That relationship began in the 1950s, when Lawson — then fresh out of seminary — came to speak on the Baylor campus. A frequent speaker at Baptist Student Union events nationwide, Lawson was invited to speak at Baylor Religious Hour (BRH), a longstanding campus worship service, in October 1957 (see Lariat coverage here). After his speech, the students who invited him saw firsthand the reality for African-Americans in the South, as the hotel booked for him would not allow him to stay there. Instead, Lawson spent the night on a student’s couch. Despite such obstacles, however, Lawson returned to speak at Baylor many times in the following years, developing a love for the university and its mission.
Lawson was young and relatively unknown when he first visited Baylor, but his move to Houston three years later positioned him for leadership throughout the Civil Rights era and beyond. There, he became a professor and Baptist Student Union director at Texas Southern University, and he established Wheeler Avenue Baptist Church two years later. He never intended to become the city’s preeminent civil rights leader, but through his leadership of voter registration drives and protests against segregation, he essentially launched the civil rights movement in Houston. He marched with Martin Luther King and was chosen by King to charter the city’s Southern Christian Leadership chapter.
Through the years, Lawson has led initiatives to serve the homeless, fought for workers’ rights and become a leading voice for justice in Houston. His church grew from a few people visiting in his home to more than 14,000 members, and it is widely recognized for its outreach in the city. In 1996, the community honored him through the establishment of the William A. Lawson Institute for Peace and Prosperity, which eventually opened the Lawson Academy, a middle school for inner city youth.
Today, Lawson’s connection to Baylor continues through his role on the Board of Advocates for Baylor’s Diana R. Garland School of Social Work (SSW). For social work students and faculty, the opportunity to learn from Lawson — whether in visits and lectures, or in his role on the board — is priceless, and his insights have helped shape SSW initiatives.
“His legacy continues to open the eyes for a new generation,” says Dr. Jon Singletary, BA ’93, dean of the school of social work. “He’s a man of deep gratitude and humility, and he’s been a true gift to us. He’s given of himself substantially, especially as we’ve opened our Houston campus, opening doors to connections there for our students. His love for Baylor and willingness to serve on our Board is absolutely incredible.”
Sic ’em, Rev. Bill Lawson!