Community leader, civil rights pioneer hailed as advocate for justice
Rice University has announced it will name part of its campus central quadrangle The Reverend William A. Lawson Grove in honor of the esteemed community leader’s contributions to the university and the city of Houston.
The grove is a beautiful shaded area that sits at the heart of the campus, situated between Herring Hall and Brochstein Pavilion and flanked by live oak trees. It houses the prominent “Mirror” art installation by Jaume Plensa, which was donated by Stephanie and William Sick.
Rice President David Leebron announced the honor during the Rice Kinder Institute for Urban Research “Lunch-Out,” a virtual event where Lawson was presented with the 2020 Klineberg Award recognizing his decades of service to Houston. The decision was approved at the previous week’s meeting of Rice’s Board of Trustees.
“With voice and vision, Rev. William Lawson has influenced the life circumstances of generations as one of Houston’s most important advocates for justice,” Leebron said.
As the founding pastor of the Wheeler Avenue Baptist Church, Lawson has been one of the city’s most influential civic voices for more than half a century. He helped orchestrate the civil rights movement in Houston, marched with Martin Luther King Jr. and worked to peacefully integrate schools and other institutions. His namesake organization, the William A. Lawson Institute for Peace and Prosperity, has advocated for disadvantaged people in Houston’s Third Ward, established two single-gender charter schools for boys and girls and built affordable housing for seniors.
“Through his leadership of Wheeler Avenue Baptist Church, the William A. Lawson Institute for Peace and Prosperity and as a significant presence in the civil rights struggle, he has lived out and advocated for moral and ethical principles representing human potential at its best,” Leebron said. “Rev. Lawson has been a leader in bringing together diverse elements of our city to make progress for all. In honor of his invaluable contributions to Houston we dedicate this grove to the living legacy of William A. Lawson.”
“The Lawson family is deeply moved by this overwhelming honor to our father and grandfather, Rev. William Lawson,” said Lawson’s daughter Melanie, a longtime television anchor at ABC-13 KTRK-TV. “We are so proud of the important contributions he and our late mother, Audrey Hoffman Lawson, made throughout their lives to this great city, always working to help Houston become diverse and inclusive. And we are extremely grateful to Rice University for such a beautiful and important recognition of their legacy.”
Lawson was born in St. Louis but grew up in Kansas City. He was 12 years old, he said, when he felt the calling to pursue a life in religion. He earned a bachelor’s degree in sociology from Tennessee A&I State College in Nashville and continued his studies at Central Baptist Theological Seminary in Kansas City, Kansas, where he received a master’s in theology and a bachelor’s in divinity.
Lawson moved to Houston in 1960 to become director of the Baptist Student Union and professor of bible at Texas Southern University. He was propelled into the civil rights movement when 14 TSU students conducted a sit-in to protest segregation at a Weingarten’s supermarket lunch counter, a seminal moment in the movement’s local history. He and his wife, Audrey, took it upon themselves to raise money and bail the students out of jail. Lawson later played a critical role in secret meetings between white and black business leaders that led to a quietly arranged agreement opening the door for Houston’s peaceful integration.
Lawson founded Wheeler Avenue Baptist Church in 1962 with only 13 members. A year later, Martin Luther King Jr. visited Houston, and according to Lawson, almost none of the city’s black churches welcomed the civil rights leader because FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover had accused King of being a communist.
“He was not very popular, but we invited him to our church,” Lawson said.
Since then the church, like the city of Houston, has prospered. Its congregation has grown to more than 19,000 members. Lawson, who retired from Wheeler Avenue Baptist Church in 2004, is now its founding pastor emeritus. He is also the author of “Lawson’s Leaves of Love: Daily Meditations,” offering a spiritual essay based on biblical passages for each day of the year.
“For over half a century Rev. Lawson has played a pivotal role in addressing a range of spiritual and civil needs, and in the process, helping to foster opportunity for all Houstonians to live in fullness,” said Anthony Pinn, director of the Center for African and African American Studies at Rice and the Agnes Cullen Arnold Professor of Humanities. “This is a fitting tribute to one whose impact on the quality of thought and life in Texas is without question.”
“Rev. Lawson’s life truly exemplifies the Rice values of responsibility, integrity, community and excellence,” said Bobby Tudor, the chair of Rice’s Board of Trustees. “His impact on Houston has had a lasting benefit for all of us.”