Rev. William Lawson, civil rights leader and longtime Houston pastor, dies at 95, church says

Rev. William Lawson, a long-time civil rights advocate and founder of Wheeler Avenue Baptist Church in Houston, has died, according to an obituary posted on the church’s website. He was 95.

Lawson was known as “Houston’s Pastor;” a trusted voice in the community who ushered the city through times of crisis and change.

In 1962, he founded the Wheeler Avenue Baptist Church where he was the pastor for more than 40 years. He later joined the civil rights movement led by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., whom he considered to be a close friend, the church’s obituary stated.

Lawson also set up a local chapter of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), a civil rights organization that was instrumental during the civil rights movement.

“Lawson, in particular, was known to help build bridges between the powerful and the powerless, as a champion of social justice and community service,” the church posted.

Houston Mayor John Whitmire held a moment of silence at Houston City Hall on Tuesday to honor Lawson. He encouraged Houstonians to “strive for a fair, safe, and equal Houston in his honor and memory.”

“He is one of the reasons our city is so great,” Whitmire said. “He helped us during civil rights and social justice like probably no other individual in the country because Houston benefited from his leadership and character.”

“I, like so many Houstonians, I am deeply saddened by the passing of Rev. William Lawson-a Houstonian icon and pillar of our community,” Democratic Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee said in a post on X.

In a statement to CNN, Harris County Commissioner Rodney Ellis called Lawson a “towering figure in our community.”

“He was a pioneering force in the Civil Rights movement, courageously hosting the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. at his church and supporting the brave Texas Southern University students during the sit-ins that spurred integration in our city. His commitment to justice and equality knew no bounds.”

Ellis also noted that the city recently named a park in honor of Rev. Lawson and his late wife.

“The Reverend William and Audrey Lawson Park will serve as a lasting tribute to their shared commitment to uplifting every member of our community,” the statement read.

In 2021, Rice University honored the longtime pastor by naming part of its campus “The Reverend William A. Lawson Grove.”

Rev. William Lawson (2021). - Courtesy Jeff Fitlow
Rev. William Lawson (2021). - Courtesy Jeff Fitlow

“If there’s anything that I’d like for my legacy to be, it is for the different cultures of humankind to get to know each other, to respect each other and, if possible, to love each other,” Lawson said at the unveiling.

His daughter, Melanie Lawson, an anchor with ABC13 in Houston, was by his side at the ceremony.

“When it’s your Dad, you don’t really think how special they are. It’s only through the vision of other people that you realize what a difference he made,” she said at the event.

Rice University President Reginald DesRoches said Rev. Lawson’s legacy will resonate through generations.

“May future generations be reminded of his enduring impact as a beacon in the civil rights movement every time they walk through the grove named in his honor on the Rice campus,” President DesRoches said on the school’s remembrance page.

Rev. Lawson will lie in state at Wheeler Avenue Baptist Church Thursday.

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