'Houston’s Pastor' William Lawson, longtime civil rights activist, megachurch founder, dies at 95

The Rev. William Lawson, a civil rights activist and founder of the megachurch Wheeler Avenue Baptist Church of Houston, Texas, speaks during an interview in 2018.
The Rev. William Lawson, a civil rights activist and founder of the megachurch Wheeler Avenue Baptist Church of Houston, Texas, speaks during an interview in 2018. | YouTube/KPRC 2 Click2Houston

The Rev. William Lawson, a veteran civil rights activist and founding pastor of a historically African American megachurch in Texas, has died less than two months before his 96th birthday.

Wheeler Avenue Baptist Church of Houston, which Lawson founded in the 1960s and presently has a reported 15,000 members, announced Tuesday that the pastor emeritus has died that morning.

"In his nearly 96 years, Reverend Lawson has served as husband, father, grandfather, and great grandfather, as well as preacher, professor, and civil rights leader," stated Wheeler Avenue.

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"But whatever title you may have used to describe him, it has been said many times that Reverend Bill Lawson was 'Houston's Pastor.'"

Harris County Commissioner Rodney Ellis, who helped oversee the naming of a local park in honor of Lawson and his late wife, called Lawson a "towering figure" and a "pioneering force" in the civil rights movement, reported Houston Public Media.

"I am profoundly grateful personally for his friendship and mentorship and for the transformative impact he had on our community," Ellis said. "His commitment to justice and equality knew no bounds."

David Leebron, president emeritus of Rice University, who oversaw the dedication of the William A. Lawson Grove at the campus in 2021, took to social media to give his condolences.

"Deeply saddened by passing of Rev. William Lawson — amazing man of grace & goodness, of accomplishment, impact and yet humility. In Houston, he built a path both of justice and bringing people together," tweeted Leebron.

Born in 1928 in St. Louis, Missouri, Lawson graduated from Central Baptist Theological Seminary in 1955, earning a Bachelor of Divinity majoring in New Testament Interpretation and also a Master of Theology.

During the 1960s, Lawson became director of the Baptist Student Union and a professor at Texas Southern University, helping launch the Afro-American Studies Program at the University of Houston.

"His involvement with the Civil Rights Movement began when fourteen TSU students held a sit-in protesting segregation at a lunch counter," explained The History Makers. "After founding the Wheeler Avenue Baptist Church, Lawson invited the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. to speak at his church in 1963."

Lawson led the Houston chapter of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference for more than 30 years, campaigning for the area's desegregation.

In 1968, Lawson received an honorary Doctor of Divinity degree from Howard Payne University and an honorary Doctor of Humane Letters degree from the University of Houston in 1993.

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