The Reverend William Lawson, a beloved preacher and community leader known as “Houston’s pastor” who led efforts to desegregate the city, died Tuesday at the age of 95. Lawson was judicious in the fight for social justice, his prudent approach evident from the start. One spring evening in 1960, on the Texas Southern University campus, Lawson—then a lanky 31-year-old who’d arrived in Texas just five years earlier—invited a handful of students from the Progressive Youth Association, which was dedicated to advancing desegregation in Houston, into the den of the Baptist Student Union, where he was director. The group’s leader, a dynamic TSU law student and Army vet named Eldrewey Stearns, had gained some notoriety around campus after telling city council about a police beating he’d recently endured. The city needed to change, Stearns said. It needed to address its racism.

The students had seen one path of action from reading about North Carolina college protesters who had shut down lunch counters. Now they asked Lawson: Could they do the same at the nearby Weingarten’s lunch counter? No one at that time had held a sit-in west of the Mississippi River, but regardless of precedent, Lawson hesitated to spur the students to action. 

His father had a third-grade education; his mother had graduated from high school. His parents had sacrificed to send their son to college. He hadn’t taken the opportunity lightly for himself, and he didn’t take it lightly for the students on the TSU campus. The protest could end in arrest, upending their futures and destroying the dreams they’d been working toward.

Rev. William Lawson, pastor of Wheeler Avenue Baptist Church, tells demonstrators they have waited long enough for school desegregation 06/21/1965.
The Reverend William Lawson, pastor of Wheeler Avenue Baptist Church, speaks to demonstrators at a rally for desegregation in Houston on June 21, 1965.Richard Pipes/Houston Chronicle via Getty

But, of course, Lawson also understood the students’ frustration. As a relatively new resident of Houston from Kansas City—he’d arrived on August 28, 1955, the same day fourteen-year-old Emmett Till was lynched by a mob in Mississippi—the Midwesterner was taken aback by the overt segregation he was seeing in the Jim Crow South: the separate water fountains, the distinct seating arrangements.

So, while he hardly whipped the students into a lather, he didn’t discourage them either. “They walked off and left me, saying, ‘Whatever you think about whether this is right, we’re going to protest,’ ” the reverend told me in 2015. “And so they did.”

Lawson kept in touch with the students, and when they were arrested, he fought to get them out of jail. After that, he said, “I was sort of snatched into the civil rights movement.” 

It was the beginning of a long career in civil rights work. When Martin Luther King Jr. came to Houston in 1963, when J. Edgar Hoover was painting him as a dangerous communist, it was Lawson’s newly formed church, Wheeler Avenue Baptist, that saw past the smears and gave the visiting leader the pulpit. When the Houston NAACP called for protesting school segregation, it was Lawson who gathered students to march on Houston ISD headquarters—only one of the marches in which he participated.

Because he was viewed as a reasonable person looking for peaceful solutions, the protesters weren’t the only ones who leaned on him for advice. City authorities did too. Lawson was in the room when business leaders discussed Houston’s economic future and decided to take down all “white” and “colored” signs, quietly ending Jim Crow in the city in 1960. 

Years later, when he was arrested for protesting after a boy drowned at a city dump located in a majority-Black neighborhood, Mayor Louie Welch called Lawson’s home and asked his wife, Audrey, “Where is Reverend Lawson?” She responded, “In your jail.”

Welch retrieved the reverend and brought him to TSU, where students were in a standoff with police. The police started shooting before he had an opportunity to step in, and the night ended with one dead officer, almost certainly killed by a ricocheted police bullet, and nearly five hundred student arrests.

Outside of protesting, Lawson built up the community in other ways—primarily through his daily work at Wheeler Avenue Baptist Church, which he founded in 1962 and oversaw for more than forty years. 

He helped form the first Afro-American studies program at the University of Houston, he created the Wheeler Avenue Central City Comprehensive Community Center, he helped form a homelessness initiative, he mobilized voters, he sponsored Houston’s largest Boy Scout troop, and he created the first charter school for boys in grades six through eight: the Lawson Academy.

When speaking at George Floyd’s funeral, in the summer of 2020, Lawson urged mourners to continue seeking justice six decades after he joined the civil rights movement. “We can make sure that we don’t stop the fight. That we stay with it. And that we make sure that somebody knows that we are not going to stand for this,” he said.

He raised a question that day: Is this just a moment of rage and then back to business as usual? He said he hoped that wasn’t the case.