Penn State Fayette, The Eberly Campus, hosted American sculptor Vinnie Bagwell at the Maggie Hardy Auditorium to showcase a 1/3 scale model of what will be a life-size bronze sculpture of the prominent civil rights activist , Reverend James Lawson Jr.
The campus, in partnership with the Eberly Foundation, expects the project to be completed by the end of 2023, where it will take up permanent residence in the school library. Lawson, who joined Friday’s event remotely from his home in California. Penn State Fayette plans to invite Lawson to visit campus for the official unveiling of the sculpture.
“It is a true privilege to partner with the Eberly Foundation to honor the legacy of civil rights icon, the Reverend James Lawson,” said Penn State Fayette Chancellor and Academic Director Charles Patrick. “For the campus and region, this legacy tribute is an opportunity to share a vision of peaceful activism and to integrate Reverend Lawson’s story into the academic and extracurricular elements of campus and community.”
Robert Eberly Jr., who is the president of the Eberly Foundation, was in attendance, along with prominent community leaders and members of the Penn State Fayette Advisory Board.
“We at the Eberly Foundation are honored and thrilled to support the project to honor Reverend Lawson, a pioneer of the civil rights era in the United States,” Eberly said. “A colleague of Dr. Martin Luther King, Reverend Lawson was instrumental in advancing the cause of equality for all during one of the defining moments in our nation’s history.
“It is especially fitting that Penn State Fayette, The Eberly Campus, is leading efforts to recognize this esteemed Uniontown native and recognize the magnitude of his accomplishments. The citizens of Uniontown, Fayette County, Pennsylvania, and indeed the entire country are indebted to him for the freedoms that all Americans enjoy today.
Lawson was born September 22, 1928, in Uniontown, where his father, Reverend JM Lawson Sr., was pastor at John Wesley AME Zion Church in Uniontown from 1928 to 1930. The family moved to Massillon, Ohio, where James Lawson grew up and received his ministerial license while still in high school.
“I’m very excited to be a part of this announcement of this sculpture at Penn State Fayette,” Lawson said. “Of course, I’m from Uniontown, Pennsylvania, where I haven’t spent more than two years of my life, and I’ve never been back there, but I take it seriously, and I’m proud from the fact that I was born in Uniontown The church was organized to help free slaves and to understand their role in helping this country become a non-violent society, of course we are not far from that. My grandfather and my great-grandfather were runaway slaves We believe it was somewhere in Virginia.
During his freshman year in college, Lawson began reading about Mohandas Gandhi’s methods of nonviolent resistance to affect social change.
Lawson was incarcerated for refusing to enroll in the project under US Selective Services Act. After his parole from prison in 1952, Lawson traveled to India for missionary work as a coach and physical education teacher with The United Methodist Church.
Lawson said during a question and answer with audience members that his beliefs as a Christian and nonviolent practitioner are what led him to refuse to enroll in the project.
“I refused to cooperate with Selective Service because it was my personal recognition that the way of Jesus, the way of love and the powers of compassion, are incompatible with military forces,” Lawson said. “Right now in Africa we have 6,000 troops in 43 African countries. In four of those countries, black American boys shoot black African boys. It is not discussed or reviewed in the United States. What I mean is that we black people have from the beginning used nonviolence to dismantle racism. We are people who insist that love is still the way for us to overcome slavery and racism and allow true democracy to emerge.
Lawson met Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. on February 6, 1957, where King encouraged him to lend his nonviolent activism to the burgeoning civil rights movement in the South. At that time, Lawson was the nation’s only nonviolent organizer and practitioner.
Lawson’s nonviolent workshops would enable prominent activists to lead sit-ins and desegregation demonstrations across the country. Lawson educated many future leaders of the civil rights movement, including future U.S. Congressman John Lewis, Diane Nash, Marion Barry, Bernard Lafayette, and James Bevel.
Lawson advised the Little Rock 9 in 1957 and developed the strategy for the Freedom Riders, and met with Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy, who influenced President John F. Kennedy to declare and order that passengers be permitted to sit anywhere on public transport.
Lewis called Lawson “the greatest architect of the nonviolent movement in America.”
Lewis died on July 17, 2020, and Lawson was one of the speakers at his funeral.
Lawson moved to Los Angeles and served as pastor of Holman United Methodist Church from 1974 until his retirement in 1999. He continues his activism for the labor movement, reproductive rights, and LGBTQ+ rights. Lawson received the Community of Christ International Peace Award in 2004, and in December 2021, the historic MacArthur Park building at UCLA Labor Center was officially named the UCLA James Lawson Jr. Worker Justice Center.
Bagwell preserves black history by creating art for public places, and she was inducted into the 2022 Who’s Who in American for sculpture. As a figurative-figurative artist, Bagwell uses traditional bas-relief techniques as visual narratives to expand her storytelling. She has won numerous public art commissions and awards across the United States, including the inaugural Jose and Darlene Perez Award for Civic Engagement from Americans for the Arts. His full portfolio is available at www.vinniebagwell.com
“I imagined a candid portrait of the Reverend James Lawson in his youth, at the height of his influence as a theorist and tactician of nonviolence in the civil rights movement,” Bagwell said. “The important thing is to extend the story. It’s not enough to have a sculpture of the man. I want to enlighten the viewer and also involve critical thinking. Reverend Lawson once said, ‘The heart of racism is the idea that a man is not a man. I am proud to present to you: “I am a man, James Lawson.”