NEW YORK - The American Civil Liberties Union today announced the election of the Rev. James M. Lawson, Jr., an internationally acclaimed civil rights leader and religious scholar, as Chair of its National Advisory Council.
"We are proud and honored to have this 'quiet giant' of the civil rights movement take the helm of the ACLU's National Advisory Council," said ACLU President Nadine Strossen. "Rev. Lawson is unquestionably a man of peace, but he is also a fierce warrior for justice who will not back down from a fight no matter how imposing the enemy is."
Rev. Lawson was elected to the position by the ACLU's 83-member board at its quarterly meeting on April 23. As Chair of the ACLU's National Advisory Council, he will act as an advisor to the ACLU on civil liberties matters as well as a public advocate for the issues the ACLU champions. The 56-member Advisory Council is a diverse group of prominent Americans who have demonstrated a deep commitment to civil liberties.
Rev. Lawson, 77, is well known in the civil rights community as a deputy and advisor to the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., who once called Rev. Lawson "the leading non-violence theorist in the world." He was at the forefront of the civil rights struggles of the 1960's as the mentor and leader of students who conducted the sit-ins that integrated the lunch counters, libraries and voting booths of the South, as well as the Freedom Riders who helped end forced segregation on buses and trains.
Despite the fall of segregation laws and the enforcement of voting rights, "the nation must still face up to the 'spiritual forces' of poverty, violence and sexism," Rev. Lawson told the Los Angeles Times in a 2004 profile.
Strossen noted that Rev. Lawson has been at the forefront of the 21st-century struggle for civil liberties and human rights. In the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, Lawson became a founder of Interfaith Communities United for Justice and Peace, which includes Buddhist, Jewish, Muslim, Catholic and Protestant leaders, and calls on religions "to stop blessing war" and violence in all its forms.
He is also a spiritual leader in advocacy for equality of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered people, insisting that their struggle for equality under the law is part of the continuing quest for human rights and human dignity for all people.
Rev. Lawson retired in 1999 as senior pastor of the 2,700-member Holman United Methodist Church on West Adams Boulevard in Los Angeles. He has been an active member of the board of the ACLU of Southern California for the past 15 years. Since 2004, he has served a second term as president of the Los Angeles chapter of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, a group founded by Dr. King. Lawson is also chairman of Clergy and Laity United for Economic Justice, which is in the forefront of a Los Angeles campaign for a living wage for hotel, garment and restaurant workers and others. In addition, Rev. Lawson will be a Distinguished Visiting Scholar at Vanderbilt University for the 2006-7 academic year. This appointment is notable because he was expelled from Vanderbilt Divinity School in 1960 because of his civil rights activities.
The previous chair of the ACLU's National Advisory Council was the sociologist and pioneering civil rights leader Dr. Kenneth B. Clark, who held that position since 1991, a post he retained until his death on May 1, 2005. Dr. Clark's predecessor was Eleanor Holmes Norton, who served until she was elected to Congress. The chairmanship of the council is a three-year position. The Chair of the advisory council also serves as a member of the national Board of Directors of the ACLU.