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U.S. Attorney Welcomes Civil Rights Leader
BEAUMONT – U.S. Attorney John M. Bales welcomed Reverend William A. Lawson as the guest speaker at a special program commemorating the observance of African American (Black) History in Beaumont today.
This year marks two important anniversaries in the history of African Americans and the United States. On January 1, 1863, the Emancipation Proclamation set the United States on the path of ending slavery. A wartime measure issued by President Abraham Lincoln, the proclamation freed relatively few slaves, but it fueled the fire of the enslaved to strike for their freedom.
In 1963, a century later, America once again stood at the crossroads. Nine years earlier, the U.S. Supreme Court had outlawed racial segregation in public schools, but the nation had not yet committed itself to equality of citizenship. Segregation and innumerable other forms of discrimination made second-class citizenship the extra-constitutional status of non-whites. Another American president caught in the gale of racial change, John F. Kennedy, temporized over the legal and moral issue of his time. Like Lincoln before him, national concerns, and the growing momentum of black mass mobilization efforts, overrode his personal ambivalence toward demands for black civil rights. On August 28, 1963, hundreds of thousands of Americans, blacks and whites, Jews and gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, marched to the memorial of Abraham Lincoln, the author of the Emancipation Proclamation, in the continuing pursuit of equality of citizenship and self-determination. It was on this occasion that Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered his celebrated “I Have a Dream” speech. Just as the Emancipation Proclamation had recognized the coming of the end of slavery, the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom announced that the days of legal segregation in the United States were numbered.
Rev. Lawson, a native of St. Louis, Missouri, earned Bachelor of Divinity and Master of Theology degrees from Central Baptist Theological Seminary. After graduation, he moved to Houston to serve as Professor of Bible and Director of the Baptist Student Union at Texas Southern University. Rev. Lawson is the founding pastor of Wheeler Avenue Baptist Church. With the help of his wife, Audrey, the church was first established in their home in June 1962. Since the time of the church’s birth during the early years of the Civil Rights Movement, Rev. Lawson has been deeply involved in advocacy activities for African Americans, Hispanics, women, and the poor. During his 42-year tenure as pastor, Wheeler Avenue Baptist Church grew to over 8,000 members with many outreach programs. Rev. Lawson has received honorary doctorates from Howard Payne University, The University of Houston, and Texas Southern University. He is now retired from his pastorate, but Rev. Lawson remains active in various community causes, civic clubs and local government efforts.
As a young pastor, Rev. Lawson became acquainted with Martin Luther King, Jr. Dr. King once visited Wheeler Avenue Baptist Church, when it was only a one-story, frame house with 50-60 members. Dr. King invited Rev. Lawson to join him, Dr. Ralph Abernathy, and others to be a part of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in Atlanta. Fearing that his departure would seriously weaken his small church, Rev. Lawson declined. He continued to work closely with Dr. King to establish the Houston chapter of the SCLC and thus was instrumental in pioneering the cause of civil rights there.
In 1996, the William A. Lawson Institute for Peace and Prosperity (WALIPP) nonprofit organization was established by a group of community leaders to honor Rev. Lawson on the occasion of his 50 years in the ministry. WALIPP is the parent agency of WALIPP-Texas Southern University Preparatory Academy, WALIPP Senior Residence independent living facility and WALIPP Public Defender Program, all located in Houston.
Rev. Lawson graciously agreed to share his personal experiences with Dr. King, with U.S. Attorney Bales and employees of the Eastern District of Texas. The event was held in Beaumont and transmitted to employees in the Lufkin, Tyler, Plano, Sherman, and Texarkana Divisions.