Rev. Bill Lawson, Houston founder of Wheeler Avenue Baptist Church and civil rights icon, dies

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Tuesday, May 14, 2024
Rev. Bill Lawson, founder of Wheeler Avenue Baptist Church, dies at 95
Reverend Bill Lawson, a civil rights icon and the founder of Wheeler Avenue Baptist Church in Third Ward, died Tuesday morning at the age of 95.

HOUSTON -- The Rev. William A. Lawson, a civil rights icon who was also known as Houston's pastor and the founder of Wheeler Avenue Baptist Church, died Tuesday morning at the age of 95.

The church posted a message to their founding pastor online. "He has completed his time of service here on earth and is now enjoying eternal rest."

Rev. Lawson was a father of four, including ABC Houston affiliate KTRK's Melanie Lawson, but generations of Houstonians knew him as a preacher and as a trailblazer for equality.

Over the course of seven decades, Rev. Lawson helped shape Houston into what it is today, coming from Kansas City in 1955 to work at Texas Southern University.

"I would love to say that I marched heroically into the civil rights movement but that wasn't the way it was at all," Rev. Lawson said.

From TSU, he helped found Wheeler Avenue Baptist Church. It started with 13 members in 1962.

A humble man with a soft voice, he was not the kind to shout or wave a fist calling for change. It was his wife, Audrey, who encouraged him.

"'Honey, you cannot have a church with just preaching and singing. You're going to have to reach out into the neighborhood and somehow be involved with the problems of people in the neighborhoods.' So I thought of this new church as being a church that was going to be both religion and social movement," Rev. Lawson said.

He and Audrey were married for 61 years, when she died in 2015.

PHOTOS: Remembering Audrey Lawson

They had four children together -- a son, Eric, and three daughters: Cheryl, Roxanne and Melanie.

The children grew up in a house that saw visits from other civil rights icons, including Martin Luther King Jr., who tried to recruit Lawson to come to Atlanta.

He declined, choosing to collaborate with King and others from his adopted hometown, where he was building his church.

"I chose to stay here because of the people who had started out as 13, and who, by the time, were probably several hundred," Rev. Lawson previously told KTRK.

Rev. Lawson retired from the pulpit in 2004, but he remained an influential leader and counsel for leaders and young people.

His church now has more than 12,000 members.

It's a testament to the lasting legacy of Bill Lawson, the soft-spoken giant of a man who led Houston through tumultuous change with grace and humility.

"If the young people I can leave behind are people who likewise will have something to believe in and something that is going to drive them to do what is best for the underclass, that is what I'd like to pass on," Rev. Lawson said.

Lawson Legacy: How Reverend Bill Lawson became Houston's Pastor

"I wanted to be a cartoonist" Instead, Reverend Bill Lawson became Houston's Pastor. "Lawson's Legacy" has candid, never-heard-before stories of his life's journey including peacefully integrating Houston, tireless community outreach, and how a letter written on a dare led to the love of his life.

Back to school at my mother's namesake: Audrey H. Lawson Middle School

Eyewitness News anchor Melanie Lawson goes back to school and meets the principal and students at a middle school where it was renamed after Lawson's late mother.

Civil rights pioneer Rev. Lawson joins march for George Floyd in Houston

Rev. Lawson addresses the crowd at the George Floyd march.

Inside the decisions that inspired the end of segregation in Houston

Melanie Lawson shares the story of her father and Houston's end of segregation.