Belford Lawson was born and raised in Roanoke, Virginia. He was one of Belford and Sarah H. Lawson’s eleven children. Like many other African Americans wanting to further their education, he had to attend school elsewhere. In Michigan, he attended the Ferris Institute and the University of Michigan.
After graduation, he taught social sciences and was a football coach at Jackson College in Jackson, Mississippi, and Morris Brown College in Atlanta, Georgia. He studied law at Yale University for two years and then moved to Washington, DC, where he graduated from the law school at Howard University in 1931. In 1933 he began his law practice in Washington, DC.
Lawson was married to Marjorie Alice McKenzie, also an accomplished attorney who challenged urban renewal and was the first Black judge in Washington, DC. His sister was Roanoke educator Sadie Lawson, and his brother was Fred Lawson, Roanoke teacher and football coach.
Belford Lawson was well known as a prominent civil rights attorney and activist.
- In 1933 he was one of the founders of the New Negro Alliance, a civil rights organization in Washginton, DC, that facilitated grassroots protests to showcase employment discrimination and economic disparities and injustices. The Alliance published a weekly newspaper, New Negro Opinion, that facilitated the organization’s activities (mass mailings, picketing, petitions, etc.) and engaged discussion among varied interests.
- In 1938 Lawson was the first African American to win a case before the U.S. Supreme Court. He was lead counsel for New Negro Alliance v. Sanitary Grocery Co. The White-owned grocery store in Washington, DC, with mostly Black customers, refused to employ African Americans as managers or sales clerks. Protesting the personnel policy, picketers with large placards marched in front of the grocery claiming racial discrimination.The grocery deemed that the protest unlawfully disrupted business and filed an injunction to stop the picketing, arguing that it was a labor dispute. Two lower courts upheld the injunction to stop the picketing. The Supreme Court reversed the decision and found that persons having an interest in the terms or conditions of employment should be at liberty to advertise and disseminate facts and information peacefully in order to persuade others about their employer’s practices.
- In 1950 Lawson won a lawsuit before the U.S. Supreme Court, Henderson v. United States, et al., that abolished segregation in railroad dining cars. The court determined that during interstate commerce it was unconstitutional, and an unreasonable and unjustified act of discrimination, to require segregation of Black passengers in a dining car occupied by Whites. Prior to the ruling, the Southern Railway had designated tables, White or Black, on its dining cars, separated by a curtain.The case had its beginnings from a dining car incident in 1942 (Henderson v. Southern Railway) followed by modified dining car rules in 1946 and court appeals.
- In 1956 Belford Lawson was the first Black man to address the Democratic National Convention. He was an early advisor to John F. Kennedy on civil rights and helped Kennedy gain support from African American leaders during the 1960 presidential election.
- Lawson was active in Alpha Phi Alpha, serving as national resident, the United Negro College Fund, the YMCA of Metropolitan Washington, and served on many boards of civic and business organizations.
“His heart was the heart of a warrior. Warriors love to fight and they fight to win.”
—Belford V. Lawson III, Esq., Feb. 2014
Personal Remarks for Groundbreaking Gainsboro History Walk
Belford Lawson, retired lawyer is dead at 83. (1985, Feb 24). Washington Post.
Cornell Law School, Legal Information Institute. (n.d.). Henderson v. United States, et al. 339 U.S. 816 (1950.). Retrieved March 2, 2022 from https://www.law.cornell.edu/supremecourt/text/339/816
Cultural Tourism DC. (n.d.) Belford V. Lawson and Marjorie M. Lawson Residence, African American Heritage Trail. Retrieved March 2, 2022 from https://www.culturaltourismdc.org/portal/belford-v.-lawson-and-marjorie-m.-lawson-residence-african-american-heritage-trail
Justia, U.S. Supreme Court. (n.d.). New Nego Alliance v. Sanitary Grocery Co., 303 U.S.552. (1938). Retrieved March 2, 2022 from https://supreme.justia.com/cases/federal/us/303/552/
Lawson, B. L. (1966, January 11). Interview by Grele, R. J. [Transcript]. John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum. https://www.jfklibrary.org/asset-viewer/archives/JFKOH/Lawson%2C%20Belford%20V/JFKOH-BVL-01/JFKOH-BVL-01
Parks, G. S. (2013, May 22). Belford Vance Lawson, Jr.: Life of a civil rights litigator. University of Maryland Law Journal of Race, Religion, Gender and Class. 12(2) Article 3.