Inside the decisions that inspired the end of segregation in Houston

Melanie Lawson Image
Monday, March 7, 2016
Houston's Civil Rights Movement
Melanie Lawson shares the story of her father and Houston's end of segregation.

HOUSTON (KTRK) -- It's a story worth telling -- the power of non-violent protests and the history of segregation in the city of Houston.

Reverend Bill Lawson first opposed the sit-ins but went on to become a significant player in the battle to end segregation in Houston.

When Bill Lawson moved his family to Houston from Kansas, he knew about segregation but he wasn't prepared for the physical part of it.

"We had racial separation in Kansas but signs that said black and white section of the bus which you could sit, that was new to me," he said.

Lawson says he made a decision.

"We simply were not going to buy clothes at Foley's and we were not going to drink out of the colored water fountains," he said. "I simply was not going to allow my children to grow up in that kind of atmosphere."

As chaplain for the Baptist Student Union at Texas Southern University, he couldn't understand why students wanted to sit-in at lunch counters.

"Students came to me at night when the Baptist Student Center was closed and said we're going to do a march on Weingarten's tomorrow," he said.

Bill Lawson says he urged them not to risk jail.

The students would end up in jail and he says he had the task of raising money to get them out.

"That's how I got into the Civil Rights Movement," he added.

The city of Houston also drew the attention of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. who had been branded a communist by the FBI.

"When he came here, no churches would let him come in," he said. "And we were a brand new church and I was a young preacher and I recognized the justice of these kids' protest."

What's most remarkable about the Civil Rights Movement in Houston isn't how it started but rather how it ended. Secret meetings between white and black community leaders were held.

After holding a number of meetings, they agreed to desegregate the city in a single day.

"So this was not just a matter of doing what was right," he added. "This was a matter of how can we make this city bigger."

More than 50 years later, Bill Lawson is looking back on his own role in the changes across Houston.

"Well I wish I had done more. The one thing I am glad about is that I was able to bring people together and that we could talk about the problem," he added.