From the early days of the civil rights movement through court-ordered school busing in Boston and beyond, the Rev. Earl W. Lawson knew a who’s who of activists, including the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., whom he first met when they were students at Morehouse College in Atlanta.
“Some people say they could tell Martin would become the great leader,’’ Rev. Lawson told the Globe in 1987. “Truth is, he was just an ordinary precocious fellow on campus. Nobody could have told the way he would land.’’
The two landed in the thick of the civil rights movement, King in the South and Rev. Lawson as the first pastor at Emmanuel Baptist Church in Malden, where he added his voice to the chorus demanding more than simply surface changes.
“Racism is an emotional difficulty,’’ Rev. Lawson told an audience in Roxbury in April 1968. Whites, he added, emphasize the need for law and order, “but why can’t they say we’ve got to have law and order and justice? The minute you put justice in there, you change the whole formula.’’
Rev. Lawson, who served more than 30 years as pastor of Emmanuel Baptist Church before leading churches in Hartford at the end of his preaching days, died Jan. 18 at his home in Hartford. He was 92 and had been treated for cardiorespiratory ailments.
“He was an outstanding pulpiteer and was on the cutting edge of local civil rights action,’’ said the Rev. Michael E. Haynes, retired pastor of Twelfth Baptist Church in Roxbury. “Although his pulpit was in Malden, his ministry was just as effective in Boston. I don’t think there were many prominent pulpits in Boston that Earl Lawson did not preach in.’’
In addition to his ministry, Rev. Lawson was a founder and first director of the Roxbury office of the Opportunities Industrialization Center, a program active in other cities that offered job training for economically disadvantaged blacks.
For a time, he was also director of Outreach Inc., a program that addressed the problems of alcoholism in Roxbury.
“One of the things people don’t realize is that when you deal with alcoholics in the black community, you are dealing with problems of survival, the matters of food, clothing, bills,’’ he told the Globe in April 1972.
During court-ordered busing to desegregate Boston’s schools, Rev. Lawson also was more than just a voice in the pulpit calling for change.
“He rode the buses; he stood on the corners; he was involved with people from the political arena,’’ said the Rev. Everette W. Frye Sr., pastor of Bethlehem Baptist Community Church in Holyoke, who was preaching in Cambridge in the mid-1970s when he met Rev. Lawson.
“He was one of the pastors who not only talked about it on Sundays, but he demonstrated it in the week,’’ Frye said. “I believe his presence had an impact on the overall segregation situation in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.’’
Born in New Orleans, Earl Wesley Lawson was the third of four children and grew up in a neighborhood so segregated that “he told me he didn’t see his first white person until he was 18, when he left to go to college,’’ said his daughter, Rachel Idowu of Hyde Park.
After graduating as salutatorian of his high school class, he went to American Baptist Theological Seminary in Nashville, where he graduated with a degree in theology.
At Morehouse College, where he met King, Rev. Lawson earned a bachelor’s degree and began preaching at a church in Chattanooga, Tenn., while still a student.
He pursued further studies at Andover Newton Theological School in Newton, graduating with a bachelor of divinity degree and a master of sacred theology degree. While there, Rev. Lawson kept in touch with King, who was doing graduate work at Boston University.
“Nonviolence to Dr. King was both an attitude and an action,’’ Rev. Lawson told the Globe in January 1974.
“When King talked about violence, he wasn’t just talking about the barrel of a gun. Violence was also to deny the poor. Violence was also robbing anyone of a good education.’’
In the pulpit and through social activism, Rev. Lawson “was a good example of the mandates of Jesus Christ to preach the Gospel to serve the poor and needy,’’ Haynes said.
“He was not only passionate about his beliefs, but he was a compassionate individual,’’ said the Rev. Conley Hughes, senior pastor of Concord Baptist Church in Milton.
“He reached out to people, and there was no situation in which people were being marginalized that he would not speak out,’’ Hughes said. “He felt that God has called us to help those who had the least and those who were left out, and that was his passion.’’
In January 1967, Rev. Lawson found that the person he most needed to reach out to was himself. Driving along the Southeast Expressway, he struck Boston Fire Chief James J. Flanagan, who had gotten out of his car after being involved in a minor collision. Flanagan died of injuries the following day. A jury found Rev. Lawson not guilty of driving to endanger, but he still faced the judgment of his own soul.
Though he was no stranger to preaching about God’s forgiveness, as well as the need to forgive one another, “I think from that he learned what it meant in terms of learning how to forgive himself,’’ his daughter said.
“It took him a while to reconcile himself with the fact that it was an accident,’’ she said, adding, “I think it broadened his perspective on forgiveness.’’
Rev. Lawson’s marriage to the former Frances Coleman of Boston ended in divorce. In addition to his daughter, he leaves two grandsons.
A memorial service will be held tomorrow at 11 a.m. in Twelfth Baptist Church in Roxbury. Burial will be in Oak Lawn Cemetery in Roslindale.
A magnetic presence in the pulpit, Rev. Lawson was a mentor to many seminary students, paying particular attention to those who, like him, had settled in the North after growing up in the South.
“Preachers from all over the country would come to him, would write to him, seeking his advice, asking him to preach for them,’’ his daughter said. “Preachers loved to hear him preach.’’
Rev. Lawson, she added, “did not believe that faith could be separated from any other part of his life. He didn’t believe in compartmentalizing anything. It defined who he was and motivated his living. His faith was his life and his life was his faith.’’
Bryan Marquard can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.