Uniontown, PA and Martin Luther King, Jr.

As the legal holiday of Martin Luther King’s birthday is celebrated, I am reminded of the tie of Martin Luther King, Jr. to my research on the Underground Railroad in western Pennsylvania.

AME Zion Church Uniontown, PA

When Pat Trimble took me to the AME Zion Church in Uniontown, the only connection I knew was that African Methodist Episcopal Zion churches were part of the Underground Railroad history. What I did not know was how significant this particular church was in relation to Martin Luther King Jr.’s approach to civil rights.

AME Zion Church

AME Zion Church side view Uniontown, PA

Pat Trimble - standing where original church was located

The AME Zion congregation has owned this particular property since the 1850s. The current church, built in 1913, is the third church constructed on this spot. Reverend James Lawson, the minister in the 1920s, and his wife, had a son who grew up to be an influence on how Martin Luther King, Jr. addressed the civil rights activities.

James M Lawson, Jr., was born in Uniontown, PA in 1928 and learned firsthand how ugly and cruel people could be to black individuals. In the fourth grade, after slapping a white boy in the face for the disparaging remarks made about Lawson’s race, James told his mother what he had done.

There must be a better way

However, Mrs. Lawson “did not answer with words but with a simple, profound gesture. She turned her back on young Jimmy. ‘Well Jimmy, what good did that do?’ were her first words. For the next few, heavy minutes, his mother gave him a “soliloquy” on his family, his faith, and his values. ‘Jimmy, there must be a better way,’ she ended. In that moment, Lawson decided to practice nonviolence.”¹

After studying satyagraha, the principles of nonviolence resistance developed by Gandhi, Lawson entered Oberlin College in 1955 as a graduate student in Theology. There, Lawson was introduced to Martin Luther King Jr. and later enrolled in Divinity School at Vanderbilt University. As a reverend, Lawson moved to Memphis, TN in 1962. Six years later, he asked Dr. King come to Memphis to give the famous Mountaintop speech on April 3, 1968 in support of the black sanitation workers’ strike. This was the day before King’s assassination.

“Martin Luther King, Jr., 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.” ²

Lawson continues to speak out on civil liberties and human rights.


¹Joshua Ogaldez, “Reverend Lawson: Another World is Possible.” Associated Content by Yahoo!, October 16, 2010 accessed January 18, 2011 http://www.associatedcontent.com/article/5883326/reverend_lawsonanother_world_is_possible.html?cat=75.

²ACLU. “Rev. James Lawson, Jr., Renowned Civil Rights Leader, to Chair ACLU’s National Advisory Council,” May 4, 2006, accessed January 18, 2011. http://www.aclu.org/organization-news-and-highlights/rev-james-lawson-jr-renowned-civil-rights-leader-chair-aclus-nation.

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Published in: on January 18, 2011 at 11:01 pm  Comments (2)  

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2 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. I am a fan of the Rev. James Lawson, Jr. (I just learned he was a Jr. from your blog). He truly was a one of the key mentors of the young people in the Civil Rights movement and he was of one heart with Martin Luther King, Jr. when it came to non-violence. He fought injustice all his life and still does. He stands up for gay and lesbian rights. He has a deep faith in God. It is right to remember him on Martin Luther King Day and he is a beautiful connection to the Underground Railroad and the A.M.E. The Civil Rights Movement is a continuation of the struggle of the Underground Railroad. Both broke unjust laws of their time.

  2. Please contact me . I am very much interested in the history of African American’s history in the East End Community as well as Fayette County. I am the new Executive Director of East End Community Center.


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